TAMPA — The Lightning are back.
Remember these mutts?
I know, you tried and tried to forget.
Jon Cooper and his players, fresh from a record 62 wins and a record-smashing collapse — easily the biggest fold in Tampa Bay sports history — begin training camp with a skate at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon on Friday.
Thursday was for physicals. I took mine Wednesday. It showed that I tore something last season by repeatedly typing that it was the Lightning’s time.
Ah, the Cup-less chemical train wreck that was 2018-19.
Well, they’re back.
Hurry up and wait.
For the life of me, I am trying to get excited, but just thinking about this upcoming season — 82 games of forced marching — simply reminds me that none of it means anything without what follows. This upcoming season is set against the backdrop of last season’s failure: the Lightning being swept out of two buildings by John Tortorella and Columbus.
Even the idea of Tampa Bay and star center Brayden Point ending their game of chicken and coming to a new contract doesn’t quite make everything seem okay. Nor does the fact that the Lightning, on paper, should be one of the best teams in hockey all over again.
No team is up against it more than Cooper and the boys.
And that might be their motivation.
People are counting them out this season. Hey, the Lightning might win 50 games again, might win 62 games again, might go 82-0, and it won’t matter.
It’s the season of folded arms. It’s the season of, “Talk to us in the playoffs.” It’s the season of, “Are we there yet?”
When Point joins the fold, the Lightning will have the best core in the league: Point, MVP Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos up front and Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy guarding the gate.
You can’t count these guys out. Even after they were counted out of last year’s playoffs, swept out, some of us still can’t believe that the team that had the Hart Trophy winner for best player (Kucherov) and Vezina Trophy for best goaltender (Vasilevskiy) came up that embarrassingly short when it mattered.
I missed the signs, I guess. The Lightning won and won. They self-corrected their way out of slumps. They were a machine. The front office sat on its hands at the trade deadline, fretting about tampering with team chemistry.
It was always Cup half full, never half empty.
But there was no Cup.
We’re about to find out how that resonates with Cooper’s team. The 2018-19 Lightning will wear goat horns forever, a modern-day Vikings or Bills or Capitals. For good measure, the St. Louis Blues went and won the Cup for the first time in their 43 seasons of existence. Somebody has to jump in.
How will this team wear that, learn from that, build off that, in the long regular season ahead? It goes on forever. It made the abrupt playoff exit that much more uproariously awful. I mean, what’s the point of these 82 games? What?
The Lightning are very talented again. They should be in the hunt again. But what can they do between now and the playoffs to show that they are ready for that next step?
It’s either another big tease or the fuel behind a Cup run.
Here come the Lightning.
Are we there yet?
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly