Monday, June 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning finds there's no sneaking up on teams this year (w/video)

TAMPA

Another game for the Lightning on Thursday. Another clunker.

The offense is still on holiday and the result was a discouraging 2-1 home loss to Colorado, the third loss in a row for a team that didn't lose three in a row all last regular season.

After the Lightning carved its way through the Eastern Conference all the way to the Stanley Cup final a season ago, we figured that all that stood between Tampa Bay and another trip to the final was that pesky thing known as the regular season.

Now 11 games into that regular season, we've learned this definitely is not going to be easy.

The Lightning season will be a grind, saddled with really high expectations and littered with really determined opponents.

The Lightning is an eighth of the way through the season. So far, it has everyone's best shot. Whether it's a good team such as the Blackhawks or Blues, or a middling team such as the Bruins, or a lowly team such as the Sabres or Avs, it hardly seems to matter. Regardless of the opponent, the Lightning has yet to run into a team that has played like dogs.

"We expect the best from every team every night," defenseman Victor Hedman said.

So far, and unfortunately for the Lightning, the other teams have not disappointed.

"I can't say we've watched a team lay down," coach Jon Cooper said. "That has definitely not happened. What is the reason for that? I don't know."

I know the reason. The Lightning is a marked team. It is the defending Eastern Conference champ. It is capable of embarrassing teams. It sets the standard other teams are trying to reach.

"You can see that teams are giving us their best," goalie Ben Bishop said. "They want to kind of size themselves up against the Eastern Conference champions. We've done that in years past and now teams are doing it to us. Whenever you're not ready just a little bit, teams are going to take it to you."

Winning in the league is hard enough. Now add to that focused and motivated opponents. The Lightning is not sneaking up on anybody. When you're getting the best out of everybody else, there's only one thing to do.

"We need to expect the best out of ourselves," Hedman said. "We know we're probably the team to beat. We have to make that a challenge for ourselves, to prove ourselves every night. It's a new season, a new start."

The start has been a tough road. Literally. The NHL did the Lightning no favors with its schedule. Seven of the first 10 games were on the road, including trips to scary outposts such as Chicago, Detroit, Nashville and St. Louis.

It is home for a quick two games now before heading back out on a four-game road trip. That means 12 of the first 16 are away games.

"And it hasn't been easy travel," Bishop said. "It means you have to focus all that more"

There's also a psychological battle going on with the Lightning.

A long postseason meant a short offseason. The end of the Stanley Cup final to the beginning of training camp felt like a long weekend.

Tampa Bay said all the right things and preached internally about getting up for every game, not looking too far ahead, not thinking about the playoffs before the season even got under way. And that's easy to do when you have the adrenaline that the start of a new season brings. But the season isn't fresh anymore.

"Are you asking if we are in the dog days already?" Cooper said with a smile.

Yes. That's exactly what it feels like. Now the Lightning must guard against the realization, and maybe slight depression, that it's going to take another 70 games and five months just to get back to where it was a season ago — when it still came up short of the ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup.

The danger, of course, is moping around while one game passes into another.

"You can let these games early in the season slip by; you can't overlook them," Bishop said. "Throw in a tough schedule on top of everything and the travel, it's tough."

The start hasn't been all that bad. Despite a recent scoring drought, maybe partly due to the hard work of their opponents, the Lightning is managing to pick up points. Going into Thursday, it had 12 points in the first 10 games. Do that for an entire season and that comes out to 98 points. That would have comfortably made the playoffs a season ago and, considering all the road games the Lightning has played, it expects to pick up more than 98 points.

The one thing the Lightning can't do is dismiss any early season hiccups just because it feels like the season is early.

"It's funny to say because we're only 10 games in," Cooper said, "but the next thing you know it's going to be Thanksgiving, it's going to be Christmas. We just got to make sure we're still above water, that we can find ourselves in a playoff position. And we are right now."

Will the Lightning be come April? Yes.

But it won't be easy.

 
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