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More at stake for Lightning tonight than its season

The reputations of coach Jon Cooper, left, and star center Steve Stamkos stand to take the most damaging hits if the Lightning makes a second straight first-round playoff exit tonight.
The reputations of coach Jon Cooper, left, and star center Steve Stamkos stand to take the most damaging hits if the Lightning makes a second straight first-round playoff exit tonight.
Published Apr. 27, 2015

DETROIT

Standing on the fourth floor of the team hotel Sunday afternoon, moments after a 35-minute meeting, Lightning forward Brian Boyle said, "We know what is at stake."

Teammate and defenseman Victor Hedman, just a few feet away and wearing his Rays cap backward, said, "(Tonight) is the biggest game of the season."

Both are absolutely right. A lot is at stake tonight when the Lightning plays the Red Wings in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series. And of course it is the biggest game of the season for Tampa Bay, which trails the best-of-seven series three games to two.

Yet, Boyle and Hedman had no idea that their strong words really didn't encompass everything that is at stake in this biggest game of the season. Not only would a Lightning loss end what has been a terrific season, it would do even more damage than that.

Reputations are on the line. Legacies are at stake. Maybe even futures would be brought into question.

If the Lightning goes away as meekly tonight as it did in paralyzing shutout losses in Games 3 and 5, some key Lightning faces will take a major hit.

The list will include Ryan Callahan, Nikita Kucherov and, to some extent, goalie Ben Bishop. But let's get right to it, shall we? If the Lightning goes out with a whimper tonight, a lot of fingers will be pointed at coach Jon Cooper and captain Steven Stamkos.

The men known as "Coop" and "Stammer" will take most of the blame for a Lightning season ending far short of expectations.

Is that fair? You bet it is. They are the leaders — the smart coach and the elite star. They are the two most responsible for getting Tampa Bay this far, and they are the ones who need to prove that moments like these are not too big for them.

"We've been together eight months now," Cooper said. "It's as good a group as I've ever coached. It would be a shame to have it all end (tonight)."

It would be a shame for a team that set franchise records for victories and points. It also would be a major disappointment.

This should not be happening.

This isn't last season. Despite having home-ice advantage in the playoffs and having handled the Canadiens during the regular season, the inexperienced Lightning really wasn't prepared to compete in the first-round series with Montreal, especially when Bishop was lost to injury just before that series started. The Lightning was knocked out in a sweep by a better team.

That's not the case this season. The Lightning isn't a bunch of kids who don't know what the playoffs are about. Frankly, the Lightning is better than the Red Wings. Detroit is playing well, but this will still go down as a pretty sizable upset if the Lighting is eliminated.

The Lightning's failures so far start with Stamkos, who is goal-less in the series and has gone eight consecutive postseason games without hitting the back of the net. When you put up zeros like that, naturally there are going to be questions about shrinking in big games.

Cooper was quick to point out that Stamkos scored 43 of the Lightning's 262 goals in the regular season, meaning the players who combined for 84 percent of Tampa Bay's goals also haven't scored much in these playoffs. Like Cooper, Stamkos' teammates are quick to defend their captain.

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"We all want to put the puck in the net a little bit more," Boyle said. "We've all had chances. … Everybody wants to contribute a little bit more."

But if the Lightning loses this series because it can't score, no one is going to blame J.T. Brown and Brenden Morrow. And no one is going to care about how many faceoffs Stamkos won and how many checks he threw.

Stamkos has one job: put the dang puck behind the other team's goalie. When you don't do that, you are going to take heat. You make your money scoring in the regular season. But you make your reputation by scoring in the playoffs, and right now, Stamkos' big-game reputation is not as big as his future contract.

Speaking of which, let's dismiss the crazy talk right now. The thought that the Lightning should not sign Stamkos to a long-term deal is insane. He's still its best player, and the Lightning might not even make the playoffs without him.

Also a dumb thought: Cooper should be fired if the Lightning loses tonight and he falls to 2-8 in the postseason.

Seriously? He has taken a young team and has taken it to the playoffs in each of his two full seasons.

Both should be here for a long time. It's too early to suggest other­wise. But you have every right to question what Stamkos and Cooper have and have not done in the past two postseasons, especially this year.

When it comes to the playoffs, they will have to prove it before we believe it. And we will have trouble believing it if the Lightning loses tonight.

See? There's more at stake tonight than just the Lightning's season.