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Lightning needs to play with sense of urgency this year

Here we are at another NHL season. I was wondering if Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the party-hearty Washington Capitals had sobered up yet, but they raised their banner Wednesday night, then blew the doors off the Bruins to begin their title defense. Nothing to it.

Then there is the Lightning. It begins its season Saturday, with as much of a chance to win the Cup as anyone.

Like, what else is new?

Six months of forced march lay ahead, the endless regular season.

"It's such a long way off, just in the sense that you're got to play 82 games just to give yourself a chance to get back to the playoffs," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

And the regular season won't matter if the season after it falls short. Talk about expectations

Tough. They're not going away.

The Lightning began last season in a rush. You looked up and its record was 5-1, then 9-1-1, then 16-3-2. It was a runaway train. Yeah, the quick start was everything. Meanwhile, the hapless Capitals began last season 8-7-1.

Then came late May. Lightning players trudged to their dressing room, heads down, as Washington celebrated an Eastern Conference championship on Amalie Arena ice. Ovechkin clutched the Prince of Wales Trophy as if it was a baby as he left the building.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos and his teammates need to produce that kind of love this season, no questions, no excuses. Nobody gets a badge for coming close.

"Did the Buffalo Bills?" Cooper said.

At least the Bills played in four consecutive Super Bowls. In that sense, at least the Lightning has come close in three of the past four seasons.

Yes, it's easy to classify the Lightning as a "disappointment" rather than a "failure." Before they won the Cup, the Capitals were an abysmal failure, beyond talented, but always stuck in the second round, unable to get past Pittsburgh. Yes, the Lightning has merely been a disappointment.

But disappointment and failure have a way of eventually coming together along the road. The Lightning is coming up on that merge. The team should be feeling urgency, even if it's just on the inside.

Close is not enough.

Three deep runs and seven playoff series wins in the past four seasons. The Lightning has two of the five best players in hockey (Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman), according to the Hockey News. It has two others in the top 25 (Andrei Vasilevskiy, Steven Stamkos). It has an ascending star (Brayden Point) and one in the making (Mikhail Sergachev).

Close is not enough.

"Because you didn't win the big one, does that mean you're not a great team," Cooper said.

Just for fun, let's say it does.

"We like the pressure," Hedman said.

Wish granted.

For a moment, for fun, let's say this team has everything it needs to get it done. Okay, fewer shots allowed, better penalty killing. Let's just say the regular season isn't the prize. Let's just say jobs are on the line. I wish the Lightning thought like that. Maybe it does. It needs to think like that.

Anything is possible, and in either direction.

"If you say Washington, they just didn't go very far," Cooper said. "They just never got out of the second round. But they were always really, really good. That just goes to show you how razor thin winning and losing is."

Close isn't enough anymore. Win it this year or forget the razor — the long knives come out.

The Capitals raised their banner Wednesday.

"You can never say the Capitals came out of nowhere because they've been a great team in this league for a long time," Cooper said. "I love the fact that consistently we've been the team that's gone far in the playoffs. I do not love the fact that we haven't been able to finish the job."

He smiled.

"The longer this has gone on, I think it's definitely something the players can cling to, that we've got to get back there to get ourselves that chance. Who's next? And why can't it be us? That's the way we're looking at it."

Eighty-two games? Really? All that regular season, then we find out who's next?

I'm bringing a book.

The Lightning better bring more than that.

Contact Martin Fennelly at or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.