TAMPA — The Lightning blew the roof off the NHL in the first half of the season. Tampa Bay is 33-8-2 with 68 points, just off a 15-0-1 stretch that had it on track to approach season records for wins and points.
Now comes the hard part.
There is less than half a season left. The Lightning began its second half with a 5-2 loss in San Jose. Bolts Nation, thoroughly spoiled, is in a slight panic. Its heroes have allowed five goals in three of their past six games, though they won two of those three.
Everyone needs to get it through their frozen skulls that the first half was a dream.
"It was unrealistic," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It was unreal."
But just what will this team do with itself the rest of the way, which amounts to three months of a regular season, save for a week sabbatical and the All-Star break? The Lightning entered Wednesday 10 points better than anyone else in hockey. It has the best home record in the NHL and the best road record. Anyplace feels like home when you're 33-8-2.
The Lightning has been so good that we're already on to the next thing: winning the Stanley Cup.
Does this team have a choice at this point? And how does it make use of the rest of the way, which began Tuesday with a 4-0 win over coach John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets at Amalie Arena.
The Lightning wanted to make a statement and back up goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Check, and check. #TBLightning #GoBolts @TBLightning #BlueJackets @BlueJacketsNHL @dianacnearhos @TB_Times https://t.co/7Lt34xplab— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) January 9, 2019
"I think it will be hard to maintain that level," Cooper said. "There are a lot of good teams in this league we haven't played yet. I think our schedule gets a little bit tougher down the stretch. But for us, it's all about making the playoffs. That's the process, to get there in the end."
I've got news for the Lightning: It's already in the playoffs. It's just a matter of whether it loses a few games to keep the fear up heading into the postseason.
Maybe the Lightning needs it. Case in point: The Washington Capitals had the most points in the league two and three seasons ago. It didn't matter in the playoffs, as they fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins both times in the second round. Last season the Caps were good, but the Lightning was better — and was bumped off by Washington in the Eastern Conference final. That was supposed to the Lightning's year. Remember?
Now here we go again.
Hey, guys, lose a few, will you?
"If we lost a bunch in a row, everyone will go 'What's wrong with them?' " Cooper said, grinning.
"I don't know if you need to top the first half, record wise," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "It's about the closeness of the team, how we grow as a team. It's how we play our game and how we prepare ourselves for the playoffs."
But how does this team maintain a fighting edge through the sled-dog days? Cooper the people manager has his work cut out for him.
At a recent Lightning game, I talked to Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, the king of runway trains. Bowman's Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup from 1976 to 1979 and lost only 46 games in those four seasons. I asked Bowman how those Montreal teams stayed razor sharp all the way through.
Bowman answered without blinking.
"We had (10) Hall of Famers," he said.
But down the hall at Amalie on Tuesday was another expert: former Lightning coach Tortorella. After succinctly analyzing the Blue Jackets' season as only he can ("Up and down like a toilet seat") Tortorella considered Cooper and the Lightning's dilemma.
Tortorella has a unique perspective, having won the Cup here in 2004. The Lightning didn't lead the league in points but won the Eastern Conference on the strength of a 10-0-1 stretch from late February to mid March. They got after it.
John Tortorella thinks Martin St. Louis would make a "really good" NHL coach. #TBLightning #GoBolts @tblightning @mstlouis_26 #BlueJackets @BlueJacketsNHL @TB_Times @_nickkelly https://t.co/mdNwYyuO64— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) January 9, 2019
"That was a really young team, a young coaching staff at that time," Tortorella said. "I thought our guys were going to be in at 11 o'clock at night. I thought they were asleep in bed. As I find, as I have get-togethers with them, they were out, and they were going hard off the ice, too. So, who the hell knows? We didn't know what we were doing. We were just playing.
"We had a strut about ourselves, an arrogance about ourselves, that far outreached X's and O's. That's very important, especially with today's athlete. It's about that strut, that certain type of arrogance. We had it then. And it carried us through."
Tortorella added, "Two years ago, (the Blue Jackets) went on a run. We won 16 games in a row. The way I looked at that when we were going on that run, I knew we weren't playing very good games, that we were getting sloppy. I wasn't sure where to go. Leave them alone, they were feeling good about themselves, or knock them down and start teaching structure. You have to ask 'Coop.' I don't know how he feels about it. But when we were going through it, not at (the Lightning's) level, but pretty close, I was fighting myself. Do I coach them, or do I ride the wave? I chose to ride it.
"I don't want to speak for (the Lightning). But to me, I think you need to go through some tough times during the regular season. Come playoff time, I don't think it's a bad thing to have had some bad runs during the regular season. It's a long year. You can't always be perfect. Your guys have to be tested. Your leadership group has to be tested (about) how to get (out) of some situations when you do get in trouble."
Scary thing: The Lightning has already been through some tough times this season, losing defenseman Victor Hedman for eight games, then goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy for 14 games. The Lightning went 12-2-0 without Vasilevskiy.
"I think the boys feel like they have something special going on here. They don't want to screw it up," Cooper said.
"I hope they get their (butt) kicked (Tuesday night), if you're asking me."
The Lightning is back in the win column.
But be brave, Lightning fans. There still may be hope.
"Who knows, we might hit a 16-game losing streak," Stralman said.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or 813-731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.