Saturday, February 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: Believe it or not, Lightning back in contention

TAMPA — What a strange trip it has been for the Lightning this season.

For darn near three months, it was beat up and beat down. It looked overmatched and undermanned. The playoffs looked like a long shot and the Stanley Cup looked a wild dream.

Everything that could go wrong pretty much did and the team once defined by consistency was suddenly riddled with inconsistency. For three months, it felt as if the Lightning was perpetually on the edge of chalking 2015-16 up to just one of those hard-luck seasons.

So imagine our surprise that we wake up this morning with the Lightning tied for first place in the Atlantic Division after Tuesday night's 1-0 overtime loss in the division showdown against the Bruins.

"Thanksgiving or Christmastime," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said before Tuesday's game, "if anybody here was going to say there is 16 games left and you're playing for first place …"

He didn't finish the thought. I will: you would have been crazy. Nothing about the first three months of the season suggested the Lightning had the makings of a team ready for another Stanley Cup run. Now, not only does another Cup run seem possible, it doesn't take much to imagine it happening again.

Tampa Bay has come back from the dead.

"We talked about that with the guys," Cooper said. "Doesn't matter what our expectations were and where we were supposed to be or where we were, we're playing for first place. That's a pretty good accomplishment. I don't care where what division you're in or what league you're playing in. These guys have put themselves in a great position. We still have a long way to go … but that's pretty exciting."

This virtually the same team that won the Eastern Conference a season ago and came within two victories of winning the Stanley Cup. But injuries piled up and so did the losses.

Think about this. Here were are, coming up the middle of March, coming down the home stretch, and look at some of these numbers. Tyler Johnson has 12 goals. Alex Killorn has 13. Ryan Callahan has 10. Ondrej Palat has 11. Even Steven Stamkos, despite a team-leading 29 goals, is not having his typical year and disappeared for long stretches.

You look at those totals and still marvel that the Lighting has a chance to win the division. Just goes to show you how valuable goaltender Ben Bishop has been.

Still, remember how last season, the Lightning didn't lose three in a row until the final three games of the season? Well, this season wasn't even a month old when Tampa bay dropped three straight. On Jan. 5, after a 3-1 loss to Calgary, the Lightning was 19-17-4.

That hangover from last season that everyone talked about turned out to be real.

"Well, this year, you got a short summer," Cooper said. "Everybody is writing articles about you, telling you how good you are and, who knows, did we believe them? I don't know. But I do know you play such exciting hockey for two months. All of a sudden, the regular season doesn't seem as exciting when it comes October, especially when you've only had a couple months break. And we had to learn that. Until you go through it, you really don't know that experience."

It took three months of losing and slumps and bad luck to figure it out. After that loss in Calgary, the Lightning won 20 of its next 26 games heading into Tuesday night.

Which now makes you think this season's team might be more equipped mentally than a season ago. Last season, it was smooth sailing, hardly any adversity of all.

"Last year, we weren't really expected to do much," Cooper said. "People thought we might have a good team, but we weren't really expected to go to the Stanley Cup final. We weren't expected to win 50 games. It just started coming and we rolled with it."

This season, however, has been nothing but adversity.

There has been the Jonathan Drouin soap opera, the Stamkos free agency saga, and injuries, including key ones to two-thirds of the Triplets (Johnson and Palat).

To survive all of that and still have a shot at the division might be Cooper's best coaching job yet, even better than last year's run to the Cup final. This Lightning team, in many ways, might be more mentally tough than last season.

"We're learning as a team," Cooper said. "There's a growth period and I think that was a growth period for us, which has probably made us more mentally tough."

The Lightning is not in the clear just yet. It still is jammed alongside the Bruins, Panthers and Red Wings, a mosh pit that likely won't empty out for the rest of the season. Just as a winning streak can put a team ahead of the pack in first place, a mild losing streak could sink it back into a wild-card spot.

Meantime, injuries continue to be an issue. Defenseman Anton Stralman joined fellow blue-liner Braydon Coburn among the wounded Tuesday night. The Lightning still has two four-game road trips left, including the final four games of the season.

But, for the moment, the Lightning is in a good spot, hanging around first place.

Who would've thought that a couple of months ago?

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