Sunday, May 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning seeks an identity

TAMPA

Well, isn't this a nice little surprise?

The Lightning, picked by many to be dragging up the rear of the Eastern Conference, is off to a toasty start after pounding the Panthers 7-2 in its home opener Thursday night. That's three wins in four games and a reason to feel a little optimistic about a season that, truth be told, still remains more about building an identity than a winning record.

Every hockey team — well, the good ones anyway — has an identity.

That's a big deal in hockey circles. Identity, personality, what others say about you.

You can be a track team that scores a bazillion goals. Maybe you play smothering defense. Sometimes, it's about sweat and blood — your sweat, their blood.

So what would you call the Lightning's identity?

"I don't think we're at our identity yet," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

That isn't as bad as it might sound. Cooper sees signs, promising signs. Players are sticking up for one another. They compete. When someone pushes them, they push back. In fact, Thursday was a pretty good blueprint for how Cooper wants his Lightning to play.

It's a good start. But can the Lightning keep it going and win consistently?

Let's be realistic. Despite a nice open­ing act, expectations are not high for the Lightning this season. Why should they be?

This is a team that has missed the playoffs five of the past six years. It had the third-worst record in the NHL last season. You can't expect a mess like that to be cleaned up overnight.

This is a work in progress.

Goaltending remains a major question mark until No. 1 wannabes Ben Bishop or Anders Lindback show otherwise. There's not a whole lot of proven scoring after Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos. The defense, although sturdy through four games, is a concern as is the depth with so many prospects already up with the big club instead of still percolating in the minors.

"We realize what people are saying about our team and how they're not really expecting much," said Stamkos, who scored his first three goals of the season Thursday. "But we have a different attitude in this room. And we're going out there doing what we know how to do. And that's trying to win hockey games."

So how, exactly, do you do that when you have only so much talent and only so much experience yet so many questions?

It goes back to this idea about identity.

Not that long ago, the Lightning's personality was more akin to silk than sandpaper. The Lightning was known as a team that wasn't all that difficult to play against. That's worse than not having enough talent.

"I think there may have been a time when teams would come in here and it would be … a two-hour break just to come to the rink and then they're off to the beach," Cooper said. "I think our identity is coming now that it's not a night off for teams to come in here."

Of course, Cooper wants teams to leave Tampa Bay with a loss. But more than that, for now anyway, he wants teams to leave town knowing they were in a hockey game.

He wants teams to dread walking into the Tampa Bay Times Forum and to be thankful just to be able to limp out.

Along the way, the Lightning will win a few and, most likely, lose a few more.

But if the Lightning has its way, you will see the bricks of a solid foundation being laid.

"It's not about skill," St. Louis said. "It's about five guys on the ice working together. Yeah, sure, you need skill. But you need hard work."

This isn't to say the Lightning will be content with another postseason miss.

And fans never have much patience. They don't want to hear about rebuilding projects. And they especially aren't interested in investing good money in the present for a product of the future.

But that's where the Lightning is, a team working its way from the bottom half of the league to the top. To get there, it will take small steps, not one giant leap.

The players won't admit that. They won't even think it. No player should.

Cooper can't say it. He has a locker room and a fan base, both of whom expect to see a pile of W's in the standings, to worry about.

General manager Steve Yzerman won't say it that often even if he knows the process is about tomorrow and not today.

Someday, the Lightning hopes to win and win regularly and win against teams better than the hapless Panthers.

Until then, it remains in search of its identity. That's what right now is about. That's what this season is about.

And every now and then, you'll see something that resembles what it is looking for: toughness, strong defense, energy, good goaltending, impressive goals.

Come to think of it, it looks a lot like the team that won Thursday night.

Hey, it's a nice start.

Tom Jones can be reached at [email protected] and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.

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