This Lightning season has not turned out the way we thought.
The Lightning should be on cruise control, gliding to a fourth consecutive playoff spot. It should be talked about as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Instead, the Lightning is fighting for its playoff life. It is a pedestrian 24-24-6, and if the playoffs started today, the Lightning would not be in them.
What the heck has happened?
How did a season that started with so much promise turn so dark? And who is to blame?
If you're pointing fingers, the easiest target is Jon Cooper.
That's what we always do: blame the coach. In recent weeks, the underachieving Islanders, Blues and Bruins decided that the coach was the problem and some really good coaches were canned.
Cooper isn't going to be fired. Nor should he be. Yes, he shares responsibility for a season that has slipped off track. To say he is the reason for the Lightning's problems shows a lack of hockey knowledge about Tampa Bay's issues.
"Fire the coach!'' is the cry of novices who don't know what they are watching.
Maybe someday Cooper will pay a price if his team doesn't win enough. This is not that day.
So, who should we blame?
This Lightning's collapse has been a Molotov cocktail of underachievement, fatigue, injuries and staleness brought on by loyalty to a core that maybe should have been broken up long ago.
Start with a legitimate excuse: The Lightning is playing without its captain and best player, Steven Stamkos, out since November knee surgery. It's without blood-and-guts leader Ryan Callahan. Goalie Ben Bishop has missed a big chunk of time because of injuries.
The Lightning has used 34 players this season. On most nights, it has four or five guys I've never heard of who should be playing against the Utica Comets, not the Boston Bruins.
Plus, maybe this team is simply out of gas. No team has played more playoff games over the past two seasons than the Lightning. And a league-high 12 of its players played in September's World Cup of Hockey, adding a month to their workload.
Still, should a couple of injuries and a few extra games turn a Cup contender into a bottom-feeder?
No, and the problems start with the players, and that starts with the goaltending.
We all thought the duo of Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy was going be this team's strength. It has turned into a weakness. They entered Thursday 22nd in the league in save percentage. Deep analytics suggest both are playing well below expectations. Heck, if you've watched them play, you know that.
To be fair to the goalies, the defense has not been very good. Jason Garrison (a team-worst minus-10) and Braydon Coburn appear to have lost a step. Something doesn't seem right with Anton Stralman. Even Victor Hedman, despite his lofty offensive numbers and All-Star selection, hasn't played like Victor Hedman.
Meantime, an up-and-comer such as Slater Koekkoek, expected to inject youth and energy into the defensive corps, hasn't panned out.
Meantime, the offense has too many stars who disappear too often. Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn have been good. Not great. Just good.
Ondrej Palat has taken a step back. And as much as the town has fallen in love with Jonathan Drouin, whose offensive skills can be dazzling, he remains a work in progress. He still has serious mental lapses in all three zones and can be a liability as much as an asset.
But when really getting to the root of Tampa Bay's lost season, here's a radical suggestion: Maybe this is who the Lightning really is and Cooper actually got more out of them than expected the past couple of seasons.
Two years ago, the Triplets line of Johnson, Palat and Kucherov was by far the best line in hockey. Do you really think those three are among the three best players in the NHL? They're not.
Look around the league at the top teams, such as the Blackhawks and Penguins. They have several Hall of Fame candidates. Be honest. Does the Lightning have any future Hall of Famers? Maybe Stamkos, but only if he gets healthy — which has hasn't been in three years.
Maybe we've been fooled by Tampa Bay's ability to win crucial playoff games. Maybe the Lightning was fooled, too. It's easy to get suckered in by a postseason. Take two years ago, when the Lightning went to the Cup final. Know what its postseason record was that year? Only 14-12, and it was down 3-2 to the Red Wings in the first round.
Take last year. The Lightning struggled for much of season and then knocked off a couple of so-so teams — the Red Wings and Islanders — in some incredibly tight playoff games. It wasn't as if the Lightning steamrolled people.
Postseason success can impact how you think of your organization moving forward, and perhaps the Lightning kept the band together to give it a chance to finally win that elusive Stanley Cup. You have to wonder now if that was a mistake.
It's extremely rare to keep a team together the way the Lightning has the past few seasons. While elite organizations such as the Blackhawks, Penguins, Sharks and Kings have made significant roster changes, the Lightning has done very little.
Last week I wrote that the Lightning should chalk up this season as a lost one and not blow up the team. But after talking to those inside the game, the feeling is that the Lightning's lack of roster movement has led to atrophy and a team that has become easier to scout and combat.
Eventually, the Lightning will need to make changes. Not major ones, necessarily, but a bit of a shakeup. Making deals now in the NHL's salary cap world is next to impossible. The Lightning might have to wait for summer to tinker with the roster.
The Lightning still could make a last-ditch run at the playoffs. The past two games have given everyone hope.
But if this season ends short of the playoffs, everyone, including Cooper, will have to share the blame. But don't blame him too much.
If the Lightning is going to eventually win a Cup with his current team, Cooper will — and should — be the head coach.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.