Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Fennelly: Lessons from a Lightning-less NHL playoffs

We're more than a month into the Stanley Cup playoffs. It's heaven for fans. Hockey's version of the forced march has been packed with stories, like the Nashville Predators' run to the Western Conference final, the star power of Oilers star Connor McDavid, the Caps holding off Auston Matthews and Toronto, the annual Caps fold, overtime games galore, comebacks galore, mayhem galore, galore galore.

And the Lightning is missing it.

Yes, we're all wondering if Sidney Crosby's skull can take more pounding. The Penguins superstar missed time against Washington because of concussion protocol then tumbled headfirst into the boards in a game, but never was pulled. Nice. But mostly the playoffs have been a blast.

And the Lightning is missing it.

If you want to see the Bolts, you'll find some of them playing in the world championships in Paris, France and Cologne, Germany. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman (Sweden) are over there. So are Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Vladislav Namestnikov (Russia). So are Brayden Point and Alex Killorn (Canada). Lightning coach Jon Cooper is running the Canadian team. Check your TV listings. I think Kucherov is on replay at 2 a.m.

But the real action is over here, and the Lightning is missing it.

That is, unless you count former Bolts like good guy Nate Thompson, now with Anaheim, which is playing Nashville, or former Lightning coach Guy Boucher, who is coaching Ottawa against Pittsburgh. Remember 2011, when Boucher took the Lightning to within a win of the Stanley Cup final in his first season as coach? Hard not to pull for our man Guy in these playoffs.

And it beats watching Hedman slice through Denmark's defense or surfing the NHL Network for Kucherov goals. Mind you, Vasilevskiy is tending up a storm, with a 4-0 record, 1.05 goals against and .952 save percentage entering play Monday. That kind of experience can't hurt.

But it still isn't here. It still isn't the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Let's not go into what happened and how it happened — again. How a Stanley Cup favorite was decimated by injuries and early complacency.

I'm just thinking about how much fun the playoffs could have been, especially an extended run, the kind the Lightning has had in recent years. Drama every other night. Stories and more stories. You can't take your eyes off a good hockey playoff run.

Here's the real problem:

Will we ever see it again around here?

I mean, from the Lightning?

There are no guarantees. None.

It's hard not to like the Lightning's chances of riding into the playoffs next season.

This is still a young, strong roster. Kucherov is a superstar. Hedman is, too. Might want to keep Jonathan Drouin, by the way. But nothing says the Lightning will ever be the team it was when it made the Stanley Cup final in 2015 or the Eastern Conference final last season.

You can never predict what will happen. Look at Steven Stamkos and his injuries. So many things can get in the way.

That's why it stings a franchise like the Lighting when it swings and misses on a season, no matter how close it comes to the playoffs.

There's no guarantee it will happen again. Or that Stamkos, a year older, will be better than worse. Or that Vasilevskiy is a playoff goalie until he's actually in the playoffs as the No. 1, though he had a nice run down the stretch.

There are no guarantees. Of anything.

Enjoy the hockey world championships, Lightning fans.

That's your postseason while you wait for a real one.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow: @mjfennelly

 
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