Saturday, November 25, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Spelling out Lightning's steps forward

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TAMPA — The Lightning is not going to make the playoffs, and, in the long run, that's a good thing.

No one, of course, over at the Tampa Bay Times Forum is going to admit that. They aren't going to admit that the playoffs are out of reach, and they certainly aren't going to admit that it's a good thing.

The way the Lightning sees it, as long as the NHL hasn't crossed a line through its name in the standings, it's alive. And as long as it's alive, the only thing it will discuss is how to stay alive.

But let's face facts here. Despite Tuesday's 3-2 victory over Ottawa at the Times Forum, it's all just too much for the Lightning. Too far behind. Too many teams in the way. Too little time left. This season will end when the regular season does.

And, honestly, that's okay at this point.

That's a hard concept to swallow. But it gets easier if you dismiss the silly notion of, "Hey, if you make the playoffs, anything can happen." Sometimes that's true. But not this time. Not this team. Not this season. The Lightning simply isn't good enough to make you think that "anything can happen."

And, really, going on some sort of miraculous run to sneak into the playoffs might be, in the grand scheme of things, the worst thing that could happen to this franchise. It would suggest that this entire season was all about coaching and goaltending, that it only took a new coach and a new goalie to fix all of this team's troubles.

And that would be a foolish theory to believe, the type of thinking that keeps you stuck in neutral.

While there's some question that coaching was an issue and absolutely no question that the goaltending was a mess, those are far from the only issues the Lightning has had this season.

The point: Even if new coach Jon Cooper and new goalie Ben Bishop had been here since the start of the season, this team would not be good enough to take out good teams such as the Penguins, Canadiens, Bruins or, the way they're playing lately, the Caps in a seven-game series.

Now that doesn't mean the final nine games of the season are meaningless. Quite the opposite. Now is the time to figure out what you have, what you don't and how to make it all better for next season. Here are some of things the Lightning can do in the final nine games:

Establish good habits

The Lightning has been sloppy for most of this season, both in its own end and in the other team's zone. That has been better under Cooper, who isn't afraid to sit anyone who doesn't go along with the program. That's why Cooper sees the Lightning becoming more efficient getting out of the defensive zone and much better at creating more sustained pressure in the offensive zone.

"I think those are two areas that I've been happy with," Cooper said. "There are just so many more things we have to work on, but I'd say those are two of the biggest right now."

Learn about goaltending

Here's the deal. The Lightning's goalies next season will be Bishop and Anders Lindback. Cooper is calling them "1A and 1A."

For the time being, the Lightning is riding Bishop, who played his fourth consecutive game Tuesday night since being acquired from the Senators.

Cooper wants to see how the 6-foot-7 goalie handles the physical rigors of playing this much. But Lindback will play before this season is over.

Evaluate the entire team

Not only are Cooper and GM Steve Yzerman using this time to see which kids have a chance to make it, Cooper is still learning what he has among his veterans.

He is getting his first chance to see even veterans such as Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier live and up close for the first time. And he might decide that some veterans do not have a place in the Lightning's future.

Final thought

So, how do you do it? How do you keep your slim playoff hopes alive and yet do what really needs to be done to get ready for next season and beyond?

"You're competitive, so you want to win games," Cooper said. "You're putting guys in positions to win the game. If we're sitting here trying to develop, maybe different guys would be put in different situations. But that will be, maybe, for the end of the year if we're completely out of it. But we're not out of it."

Even if the Lightning is out of it — and, really, it pretty much is — now is not a bad time to get started on the future.

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