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Lightning start preseason with looming question: ‘Are we there yet?’

Fennelly: The Bolts’ season will be one long car ride until they reach the playoffs. What, if anything, did they learn from last season’s collapse?
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88), center, along with defenseman Jan Rutta (44) and center Yanni Gourde (37) hope to avoid another post-season collapse, which included this 5-1 loss in April to the Blue Jackets in Game 2 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Sep. 12

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.

MORE LIGHTNING: These guys are stigma carriers

Well, they’re back.

Excited yet?

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.

MORE LIGHTNING: There’s No Point to the start of Bolts camps.

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.

Maybe former Blues forward Pat Maroon can show the Lightning the way to the cup. [DARRON CUMMINGS | AP]

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.

Hello, Lightning!

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.

Wonderful. Super.

Are we there yet?

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning center Mitchell Stephens (67) defends against Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce (22) who challenges in the Tampa Bay zone during the first period of the preseason game on Tuesday, September 17, 2019, between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes at Amalie Arena in Tampa. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    There were flashes of promise, like good play from Mitchell Stephens, but not a great showing for Tampa Bay
  2. Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper gives direction during drills on the first day on the ice at the beginning of training camp. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    In the first four games of the preseason, Lightning coach Jon Cooper wants to see how prospects have developed.
  3. At 23 years old, Tampa Bay forward Brayden Point already has 91 career NHL goals, including 41 last season. Now that his entry level contract has expired, Point is looking for a big payday but the Lightning has salary cap issues. CHRIS O'MEARA | AP Photo CHRIS O'MEARA  |  AP
    John Romano: History says restricted free agents almost always stay put, and there’s too much at stake for Tampa Bay to allow this impasse to go on.
  4. The Tampa Bay Lightning has tapped Cigar City Brewing to bring its Jai Alai, Guayabera, and Florida Cracker beers to Amalie Arena as the team’s official craft beer partner. (Photo via Tampa Bay Lightning) Tampa Bay Lightning
    Cigar City also will move its popular annual Hunahpu’s Beer Festival to Amalie Arena starting next March.
  5. Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) smiles as his team has some offensive success after a goal during a scrimmage on the first day on the ice at the beginning of training camp at the Ice Sports Forum on September 13, 2019 in Brandon, FL. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Tampa Bay takes on Carolina in their first preseason game.
  6. Tampa Bay Lightning forward Pat Maroon (14) during drills on the first day on the ice at the beginning of training camp at the Ice Sports Forum on September 13, 2019 in Brandon, FL. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    The veteran left winger, fresh from a championship in St. Louis, prepares to dig in with Tampa Bay
  7. Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy signs the jersey of Piper Mattacchione, 7, during the Lightning Fan Fest which featured photo ops and autograph sessions on Sunday. LUIS SANTANA  |  Times
    The team hosted a kids press conference and fans interacted with players at the annual Fan Fest.
  8. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik briefly, on left, said he briefly feels the sting of last year's playoff disappointment. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Vinik sees growth of the team brand across the country and still wants an outdoor game in Tampa Bay.
  9. As training camp continues, the Lightning and Brayden Point still have a gap in negotiations. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    The changing restricted free agent market could force the Tampa Bay to depart from its usual contract dealings.
  10. In this Jan. 31, 2018, file photo, Maple Leafs center Mitch Marner celebrates his goal against the Islanders. With training camps opening this week, Marner was among roughly a dozen prominent restricted free agents who didn't have contracts until he agreed to terms with Toronto on Friday. Still among the unsigned is the Lightning's Brayden Point. FRANK GUNN  |  AP
    The contract could impact the Lightning’s negotiations with holdout restricted free agent Brayden Point.
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