Sunday, May 27, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning good at bringing out worst in foes

TAMPA — Okay, so this one stings just a little.

Down two goals. Battling back to tie the score in the third period. Dominating much of the night. Then losing on a goal in the final minute.

All in all, that's the kind of punch to the gut that the Lightning hasn't felt much this season.

But don't let the Lightning's disappointing 4-3 loss to the Capitals on Thursday night get you too down.

Because if we have learned anything this season — well, other than goalie Ben Bishop needs to get back as soon as possible and play as many games as possible — it's that the Lightning is the luckiest team in hockey.

Haven't you heard?

"This is probably the worst we played," Jets coach Claude Noel said after the Lightning won in Winnipeg earlier this week.

"It was our worst game of the year," Canucks coach John Tortorella said after the Lightning beat its old coach last week.

"It was probably the worst game since I've been here, for sure," Panthers interim coach Peter Horachek said after a loss to the Lightning just before Christmas.

While the rest of the NHL has to fight, scratch and claw for every precious victory and every treasured point, apparently all the Lightning has to do is throw its sticks on the ice and collect two points, knowing the other team can't skate from here to there without falling while circus music plays over the loudspeakers.

"Yeah, that is the common theme," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

Or wait, and I'm just spit-balling here, but maybe there's a little more to the Lightning's success than hapless opponents and great timing.

"I also think (that when a team plays poorly) sometimes it has a little bit to do with the other team," Cooper said.

He pauses, smiles slightly and adds a sarcastic zinger: "Fortunately for us, we've caught teams on bad nights, I guess."

When Cooper arrived late last season, his mission statement was simple. He wanted the Lightning to be a difficult team to face.

He wanted teams to see Tampa Bay on the schedule and get a pit in their stomachs and an ache in their heads.

That mission statement, so far, is a mission accomplished.

The Lightning is a hard team to play, certainly harder than when Cooper first took over.

"No question," Cooper said. "Are we the big, bad Bolts? Do we go in the corner and beat everybody up? We're not that (kind of) harder. But we're a faster, more puck possession, more dynamic team. Our structure is in place now. Guys know what they're doing. They know the standard they have to play to. They know what's expected of them.

"And that makes you harder to play against."

Lightning forward Tyler Johnson added, "A good word to use is relentless. We're a relentless team."

The Lightning has no business being where it is now. Even with Thursday's loss, the team remains entrenched in the playoff pack and challenging the Bruins for top spot in the Atlantic Division.

Superstar Steven Stamkos has been out nearly two months with a broken right leg. The Lightning has gotten not nearly enough from Teddy Purcell and pretty much nothing from the oft-injured Ryan Malone.

Every time you look up, another rookie is coming up from the minors and climbing over the boards. Eight have become regulars this season.

Yet it doesn't matter what adversity comes along — the Stamkos injury, the Marty St. Louis Olympic-snub controversy and, now, a hand injury to Bishop — the Lightning laces up the skates and makes another team look bad, even Thursday in a loss. The Lightning outshot the Caps 36-20 and would have won if goalie Anders Lindback was a little better in the first period.

This team's work ethic all goes back to the second game of the season, a shootout victory against the Blackhawks. The Lightning won, but the Blackhawks dominated the game.

"They were really tough to play against that night," Johnson said. "We couldn't do much of anything. I thought that was an experience for us to learn from. We've tried to mimic that, and I think we've done pretty well."

Bishop has been the MVP. St. Louis and Valterri Filppula have been outstanding. And the rookies have helped keep the Lightning above water since Stamkos went down.

"I think everyone had their doubts when (the Stamkos injury) first sunk in," Lindback said. "But we came together pretty fast. … Other guys stepped up."

The rookies are putting up more than two points per game. Over the past 20 years, only two teams had more of a contribution from their rookies — the 1994-95 Ducks, which had Paul Kariya, and the 2005-06 Penguins, which had Sidney Crosby.

"I think it surprised me a little bit in how well we've played after (Stamkos' injury)," Johnson said. "But at the same time, I didn't think we were going to tank it. I never thought we were a one-man team. A lot of people thought that, and we were fine with everyone thinking we were going to tank it. But we knew we were going to be fine, and luckily, we've done pretty well."

And, luckily, they seem to play plenty of teams having their worst games of the season.

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