TAMPA — The Lightning trails in the race for the final wild card. It has made a commendable late charge, despite more injuries and employing a patchwork lineup.
But there is the current two-game losing streak. Tonight's game at Amalie Arena against Arizona, the second worst team in the league, qualifies as "must win."
Arizona. Must win. Desperate hockey.
The Lightning is trying to save some face. It's about the greater fight, a pitched battle to stave off infamy:
The most disappointing season in Tampa Bay professional sports history.
This was a team coming off a trip to the Stanley Cup final followed by a trip to the Eastern Conference final. Challenging for the Stanley seemed logical, particularly when it kept the band together. Steven Stamkos: back. Victor Hedman: signed long-term. Nikita Kucherov: signed. Ben Bishop: back. What could stop the Lightning?
Bad hockey and a pile of injuries. That's what.
Does Stamkos' return even matter at this point?
More important, do the Bolts want to be at the head of the class for most disappointing season?
Mind you, the competition is stiff.
A spectacular high dive coming off 2002 and the Super Bowl win. The Bucs were kings of the world heading into the 2003 season. Chucky Gruden and his stars were the talk of football. They began with a 17-0 shutout of the Eagles in Philadelphia's new stadium, as opposed to Veterans Stadium, which the Bucs had closed in the NFC title game.
But it all came apart on Monday Night Football, with the Bucs blowing a 35-14 lead with five minutes left to lose in Tony Dungy's return to Tampa with the Colts. The Bucs went downhill from there. There was the Keyshawn de-activation, the Gruden-Rich McKay split and awful losses everywhere for a 7-9 finish.
The 2009 Rays, who went 84-78, truly disappointed if only because of expectations — there finally were some. Joe Maddon and the Miracles, coming off a World Series appearance from nowhere, broke slowly, rallied, then lost 11 straight in September. The fun would return, but 2009 was a disappointment. Maybe we should have seen it coming before the 2009 season, when the Rays added what was thought to be the missing piece: Pat Burrell.
Once 0-26 hapless, Tampa Bay had broken through in 1979, with Lee Roy Selmon and defense and Doug Williams leading the offense. They reached the NFL title game. They had Tampa Bay in the palm of their hands. Every game in Tampa Stadium was sold out. They began 2-0 in 1980. They finished 5-10-1, losing six of their last seven.
In 1997, the Bucs ended all those years of double-digit-loss seasons with a playoff season and a playoff win. The town was rocking. The 1998 Bucs finished 8-8, out of the playoffs, eliminated from contention as it returned from Cincinnati after a meaningless shutout win.
In hindsight, this is where it began to come apart. The 2013 Rays won 92 games and beat Texas in a tiebreaker and Cleveland in the wild-card game. They went 77-85 in 2014. David Price was traded during the season. Ben Zobrist was traded after the season. Joe Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman left. The Rays have never come close to winning since.
This season was so bad it didn't even exist. It was the lockout stoppage and it devoured everything, including the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning making a true title defense. By the time hockey resumed, goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin was gone. Not much else was the same, either. The Season That Never Was.
Desperate hockey, anyone?
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or 813-731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.