TAMPA — Monday, the NHL trade deadline, reminded me of that scene from Hoosiers, you know, when coach Gene Hackman points to his rag-tag players as the Hickory High crowd hissed.
This is your team!
“Yeah, but didn’t they pick up Jimmy Chitwood at the deadline?” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Tampa Bay, this is your team.
It’s not rag-tag. It’s a powerhouse. And it’s standing pat.
The Lightning sat on its hands at the deadline, the same hands it intends to use to raise the Stanley Cup in three and a half months. The deadline came. The Lightning watched from high atop the league standings.
Trades went down. In the Western Conference, Winnipeg got better. So did Nashville, picking up banger Wayne Simmonds, who some of us thought might end up in Tampa Bay. Vegas jumped into it by trading big and paying out to get scorer Mark Stone. Anyone out West has a shot, you see.
It will play with the cards it has.
It has announced to the hockey world that it will roll with its boys.
This is your team, Tampa Bay, the one you will rise and fall with when the real season gets underway in April. The Lightning of today is the same exact Lightning as of yesterday.
Simmonds won’t be coming to Tampa Bay to beef up the lineup. Nor did the Lightning add more depth on defense. It was clearly more worried about subtraction than addition, more concerned about messing with the mojo that has helped carry this team to 47 wins faster than any team in NHL history.
Most seasons, that would be bad news.
Monday, it was expected.
The Eastern Conference teams chasing Tampa Bay have tweaked their rosters. The Bruins made a move Monday, picking up forward Marcus Johansson. Toronto made a move a while back, trading for defenseman Jake Muzzin. John Tortorella and Columbus went all in, picking up center Matt Duchene, among others.
Part of me wanted this team to beef up its back line. Remember 2004, when the Lightning won the Cup? Ancillary defensemen Nolan Pratt and Stan Neckar came through with big minutes after injuries laid the Lighting low.
Part of me wanted Simmonds. Maybe it was the memory of the Washington Capitals, arguably the heaviest team in the league and eventual Cup champion, pushing around talented, but undersized Lightning forwards in last year’s Eastern Conference Final.
This is your team.
It has answers. It has the best scoring depth in the league. It is deep on defense, bolstered last season by bringing over Ryan McDonagh from the Rangers New York along with J.T. Miller. True, last season’s moves didn’t produce a Cup. There’s no right way to do this.
If there’s a risk, it’s that we’ll be looking for reasons to second guess the Lightning doesn’t answer the biggest question with that silver loving cup. It’s a chance this franchise thinks is worth taking.
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The Lightning, from the front office to the coaching staff to the dressing room, believes it has a core group of about 11 players that has lived everything there is to live this side of a championship, a veritable mixed grill, and that these experiences and lessons learned will matter mightily this postseason.
Maybe it built something into this roster, deep inside, something unshakable. Maybe it built a penchant for staying on point and for self-correcting, as we have seen the last two months.
All by itself, way out in front, with every reason to grow fat, the Lightning instead reinvented its defense, full in the knowledge that you don’t win playoff games 6-5. Since Dec. 13, Tampa Bay has allowed just 47 goals in 23 games, 2.04 goals against, while going 17-4-2.
Then again, the Lightning always seems to be going 17-4-2. That is this season as it rolls down the road, with only one destination that will suffice, a journey to be carried out by the same crew, front to back. You know their names. You’ve risen and fallen with them. Well, at least you’ve risen.
Tampa Bay, this is your team.
Contact Martin Fennelly at email@example.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.