Friday, April 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: Thank goodness it's time for Lightning

TAMPA — The Bucs have lost two in a row and have nightmare dates coming up with last year's Super Bowl combatants.

The Rays are limping to a second consecutive last-place finish.

Thank goodness for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The boys are back. Not soon enough.

Tampa Bay's best sports team is cranking it up. The season starts in less than two weeks.

Not soon enough.

"We've had a long-enough time off,'' Lightning center Brian Boyle said.

Not as long as most teams, seeing as how the Lightning made it to the Eastern Conference final. But longer than a couple of teams, seeing as how the Lightning didn't make the Stanley Cup final. That still stings.

But you hope it doesn't sting so much that the Lightning wants to immediately fast-forward to the playoffs in April.

"If you do that, you won't be playing in April,'' Boyle said. "There's work to be done now. This is important.''

Training camp is a necessary evil for some teams, particularly those with high expectations. When you've come as close as the Lightning has to winning it all the past two seasons, isn't it hard to get geared up for training camp? For preseason games? Even for early regular-season games?

"Yeah, you want to start the season right where the playoffs start,'' defenseman Jason Garrison said. "But that's not the way the game works. You can't look too far ahead. You've got to focus on what's going on now.''

That's where veterans such as Boyle and Garrison come in. That's where leaders point out that you can't play games in April until you play games in January. And you can't be ready for games in October if you don't put the work in now.

"The good thing is everybody on this team is a veteran now, and we all have the same mentality,'' Garrison said. "Focus on the start.''

But isn't that hard to do?

"It's not that hard,'' Boyle said. "The coaching staff is expecting us to give it our best. If we're not better, we're going to hear about it. You got to play for your job and do the best you can, because we've seen what happens if you don't.'

Let's not forget what happened last season: The Lightning entered as the defending Eastern champs, having come just two victories shy of winning the Stanley Cup. Yet, for much of last season, it was in danger of missing the playoffs. Not until the final couple of weeks did Tampa Bay solidify a postseason spot.

The entire season felt like a struggle.

"We leaned on (goalie Ben Bishop) hard early last season,'' Boyle said. "Hopefully, we've learned that lesson. I think we have. Guys look pretty good.''

Other than the contract situation of Nikita Kucherov, who is a restricted free agent and is not showing up for camp until he gets a new deal, the drama surrounding the Lightning isn't nearly what it was a season ago, so that should help.

Steven Stamkos' seasonlong contract soap opera of a year ago is now over. The captain is signed, healthy from a blood clot that sidelined him for all but one playoff game and ready to talk about hockey instead of daily updates about free agency and blood thinners.

Jonathan Drouin is back, and we're assuming his baggage from a season ago has been packed away.

Bishop ultimately could be traded, but that story has been moved to the back burner.

So, as of right now, the Lightning's seas appear rather calm, especially if it can get Kucherov in the fold eventually.

"We're working hard, ready to go,'' Boyle said. "It's good to be back.''

It's good to have them back.

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