Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning needs to be in hurry-up mode

After the slowest negotiations in the history of sport, after a torturous, glacier-like back and forth that bored fans to tears, here is a bit of advice for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Go fast.

Skate fast. Cook fast. Win fast.

Welcome to 2013, the season in a hurry. Already, the NHL is in its playoff mode. Already, the teams are in a desperate breakaway that will continue from now until the postseason.

Want to be good? Well, be quick about it.

After all this wasted time, time is a-wasting.

This is what happens when a league tries to cram 82 games of drama into a 48-game speed skate. Some teams may get left at the starting gate. Some teams may fade at the end. Some teams may wobble along the way.

And Tampa Bay? Who knows what happens to the Lightning when the entire sport starts off in the lightning round?

"My expectations are always the same,'' Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "One game at a time. It's about being better tomorrow. There is no difference, really. There is going to be urgency. To me, the playoffs always start in January.''

Nevertheless, you cannot help but notice Boucher talks kind of fast these days. And yes, he said, Lightning employees seem to run through the hallways these days.

You can make an argument that the 48-game schedule could be a bad thing for the Lightning. Boucher has always been a big believer in chemistry, and there won't be time for it to develop.

"We haven't played,'' he said. "I have two focuses. First is the game shape. We're not going to be able to put in the systems we normally do. That takes three weeks to a month. We have to break things down and keep it simple and add things as we move along.

"The chemistry part is huge. We have a lot of new faces. Some teams have the same coach, the same players, the same system. They don't need as much adaptation.''

Still, there is a better argument that the shortened season won't affect the Lightning at all. Yes, Boucher worries about chemistry, but this isn't his first season anymore. There are enough veterans on this team to know what he expects and the pace at which he expects it.

Remember two seasons ago? There were only 43 games to play when the Lightning turned to new goaltender Dwayne Roloson. Think of this season as a lot like that one.

How will a 48-game season affect Steven Stamkos? Not much. You could argue that putting his legs through 34 fewer games will help Marty St. Louis.

"I'm not worried about Marty,'' Boucher said. "He has quite a few seasons left. You could argue it will be less wear and tear for other 30-year-olds in the league, but on the other hand, you hear that it takes those guys a little longer to get going.''

But you do need a fast start, right?

"You know what?'' Boucher said. "You can have a fast start and later on have some long bad stretches. I don't want a fast start as much as I want steadiness. Don't lose five in a row. For me, this isn't a threat. It's an opportunity and a challenge.

"I'm trying to downplay this. I'm trying to keep it on an even keel. We don't get too emotional or too scared or hyper or positive.''

What a coach can do, however, is feel caged. As you might suspect, the lockout was hard on Boucher. He has a new team, a better team, and he wanted to see it up close. Of course he did. He wanted to look at the reinforced defense and the new goalie and the familiar faces.

"By mid December, I was chomping at the bit,'' Boucher said. "I was ready to go.

"Our new goalie (Anders Lindback) is promising and big. He has an unbelievable attitude and a work ethic. He has size, but he's very quick.

"The two defensemen we brought in (Matt Carle and Sami Salo) were a miracle. There were about five top-four defensemen out there, and we got two of them.''

One of the keys to the shortened season, Boucher suspects, will be depth. This year, a 12-game injury means a player will be out a quarter of the season. That means thin teams can be devastated in a hurry.

On the other hand, who knows? Of the 16 teams that made last year's postseason, 15 of them would have made it if the season stopped at 48 games (only Phoenix charged back into the race afterward, displacing Minnesota.) After 48 games last year, the Lightning was 11th in its conference. It finished 10th.

It could be worse. Go back to 1994-95, the last time the NHL played a 48-game season. That Lightning team won only 17 games.

This season should be better. If the newcomers are as good as expected, and if the familiar faces are as good as remembered, this team should contend for the playoffs. Otherwise, why come back at all?

Smaller season? Yes.

Smaller expectations? Not on your life.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. at 98.7-FM the Team.

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