Friday, May 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: More challenges for Lightning, but almost same results

TAMPA

Lightning center Tyler Johnson was sitting at his locker, looking somewhat drained but completely relieved. He and his teammates had just come off the ice following their biggest victory of the season.

Tampa Bay had beaten Detroit 6-2 on Tuesday night.

What made the victory so big?

Well, consider this: It moved the Lightning into first place in the Atlantic Division, yet gave it only a six-point cushion from being out of the playoffs. Crazy, right?

That's why it's impossible to get a handle on this season. You can't really tell if the Lightning is having a good season. It's not like last season, when everything was special.

"It's kind of weird," Johnson said. "There was one point, maybe a week or so ago, when we looked at our record and figured out it was almost the same as a year ago. We had no idea."

Us, either. But Johnson is right. Even now, the Lightning is not far off last year's pace. Today it sits with a 42-26-5 record. Last season at this time it was 45-21-7. Last season it finished with 108 points and finished second in the division. This season it's on pace for 100 and has a good chance of finishing first.

So why is it that this season doesn't feel nearly as good as last season?

"There have been a lot of ups and downs, a lot of times when we've wondered what is going on," Johnson said.

There have been stretches when we've wondered if the Lightning had the mojo it had a season ago.

There was a four-game losing streak in October and four losses in five games in November. There was another four losses in five games in February, followed by five losses in six games in the past few weeks.

Its recent four-game road trip really wasn't that bad when you look at it as a whole. Two wins, two losses. Not awful. But it is the two losses that make you turn up your nose. The Lightning lost to a Maple Leafs team playing a slew of minor-league kids, then it blew a third-period lead against the Stars.

When losses such as those pile up, when the Lightning goes through slumps and funks, scoring droughts and blown leads, it's easy to doubt it. It's easy to dismiss it. It's easy to suggest that the Lightning doesn't have what it takes to go on the type of playoff run it went on last season.

Even certain victories and winning streaks haven't always offered ringing endorsements of Tampa Bay.

Put it like this: The losing slides feel way worse than the winning spurts feel good.

Make sense?

At no point this season have Lightning fans ever really gotten comfortable and enjoyed the team like it could last season.

And yet it doesn't make sense when you consider the Lightning really isn't that far off of last year's pace.

So, what gives?

For starters, it's how the Lightning has won this season. The victories are uglier, grittier, more about defense than offense. Last season the Lightning won with offense. It led the league, scoring an average 3.16 goals per game. This season it entered Wednesday 11th, scoring 2.73.

Captain Steven Stamkos had 43 goals last season. This season he has 34. Johnson had 29 a season ago but has only 12 in this injury-plagued season. Ryan Callahan has 10 goals this season, well below the 24 from last year.

Last season the Triplets line of Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov was the best in hockey and combined for 200 points. This season, partly because Johnson and Palat have missed significant injury time, the line has compiled 125 points.

But ultimately, you want to know why last season felt so much better than this season has? Because we know how last season turned out. We know the Lightning comfortably made the playoffs, showed guts by winning three tough rounds and came within two victories of winning the Stanley Cup.

We can look back and remember how good Tampa Bay was.

This season it's so hard to look forward and predict how far Tampa Bay will go because it has been so inconsistent. It's almost like you want to hit the fast-forward button and start the playoffs today to see how this is all going to turn out. You even get the sense the players feel the same way.

Just start the postseason already!

"The closer you get, you're not sleeping," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "You want this to happen. But you can't really think like that. I think we're looking at it like, 'Okay, we're on a homestand here. Let's get our game together.' "

As much as we want to look back at Tuesday night's victory against Detroit and this weekend's back-to-back showdowns with the Islanders and Panthers and suggest that these games have playoff atmosphere, that simply isn't true.

"It's not quite playoff hockey because when you're in the playoffs, it's a whole different ball game," Johnson said. "But this is definitely the best hockey that you're going to see (during) the season."

All that's left for the Lightning is to not totally fall apart in the final nine games and to start the playoffs.

"We just want to be there," Johnson said. "We're not worrying about positioning too much. It's really just trying to play our best hockey going into it and go from there."

Getting "there" has been a challenge. Being there sounds a lot more fun.

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