Lightning letdown? Hardly, not when there are still hopes left to crush

Tampa Bay continues to keep its opponents and the rest of the league seemingly playing for second place.
Fans go wild at Amalie Arena as Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov celebrates his goal to tie the score at 4 against the Bruins during the third period on Monday, March 25, 2019. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
Fans go wild at Amalie Arena as Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov celebrates his goal to tie the score at 4 against the Bruins during the third period on Monday, March 25, 2019. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published March 25

TAMPA — So Ryan McDonagh had gauze jammed up his bleeding nose.

Ondrej Palat was back in the locker room with an upper-body injury, and Andrei Vasilevskiy looked too worn out to raise his stick by the end of the night.

Apparently, it’s hard work crushing hope.

That seems to be the Lightning’s job these days. Tampa Bay has already clinched every perk worth having, and so the team seems hellbent on playing mind games everywhere else.

Embarrass the Maple Leafs? Check. Spook the Capitals? Check. Demoralize the Bruins? Checkmate.

This is starting to get silly. It’s almost like a cartoon version of hockey. The wins keep coming, and the expectations keep growing. The Lightning is now tied for the third-most victories in the regular season at 59 and is three wins from tying the all-time record with five games to go.

This time, it took three goals in the third period to beat Boston 5-4. How? Darned if I know.

Tampa Bay had no business winning this game. It blew a second-period lead. It wasted a four-minute power play in the third period. It had zero motivation beyond competitiveness and pride.

And, perhaps, that’s the secret of this season.

“They never feel like they’re out of a game,’’ said coach Jon Cooper. “Now it’s one thing to feel it, and it’s another thing to act on it. This year they’ve acted on it.’’

We’ve gotten so caught up in the numbers and the records — and there were more of them Monday night, by the way — that we have not given adequate attention to the way this team plays hockey.

And that is … relentlessly.

Consider how long it has been since the Lightning has played a game with more than pride on the line. You could make a case that just about every team on the other side of the ice has had more at stake than Tampa Bay for the past month or two.

Lightning players could have downshifted into their own version of spring break this month, and it would not have been a shock anywhere outside of their dressing room.

And yet they’re still pushing forward.

“They realize they have to keep their game in order, too, down the stretch,’’ Cooper said. “You come back in one game, it gives you confidence in the next game. You don’t want to make a habit of this, but the fact you know you can do it is a good feeling.’’

And so every night becomes another test. Another chance to prove the Lightning can be as tough as Washington. A chance to prove the offense won’t go flat against Boston. A chance to prove everything that happened up until this point was not running up the score early in the season.

That’s why these final games against division opponents still mean something beyond the chase of history and records.

“We want to play to our standard,’’ defenseman Victor Hedman said Monday morning. “We want to play to our strength.’’

In any other season, in any other universe, the Bruins would be hockey’s hottest team.

They have been fierce, they have been consistent, and they still have lost ground. Since the start of February, Boston has gone 18-4-2 — and spun its wheels in terms of chasing down Tampa Bay.

During that same span, the Lightning has gone 22-3-2. That means the Bruins have played at an .818 clip and still lost eight points in the standings.

“What’s impressed me about this group is we’ve kind of known we’ve been destined for the playoffs for a little awhile now,’’ Cooper said. “But (after) we clinched, whether it was our division or the Presidents’ Trophy, the guys have kept going, and they haven’t taken their foot off the gas.

“They’re still trying to get better.’’

So forget the records. Forget the Presidents’ Trophy.

For now, just appreciate a hockey team that refuses to let anything get in its way. And that includes a wildly successful regular season.

Contact John Romano at [email protected]. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.