TAMPA — It’s official:
I’m part of the problem.
I’m picking the Lightning to win the Stanley Cup.
I’m going with Lightning coach Jon Cooper and the boys to go all the way.
You know, like last year.
Mandatory drug testing for columnists. Now!
The Lightning hit the ice at Amalie Arena on Thursday night with a 5-2 win over the Panthers. Trailing Tampa Bay, still, is that epic playoff fold that wiped out a record-setting 62-win season and the Cup dreams that went with it. The Rays already have won one more playoff game than the Lightning did last season.
“It’s over with,” veteran Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn said Thursday morning. “That’s the beauty of it. We had time to bury our dead. And last year is our dead.”
The Lightning’s body remains warm. This team is poised again to be a beast. I look at the roster and it still glitters, with reigning MVP Nikita Kucherov and reigning Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy, with Steven Stamkos, with Victor Hedman and, eventually, Brayden Point, with a crazy-good offense that still borders on video game. With some added muscle in the likes of Luke Witkowski, and Pat Maroon, who just won a Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues, and a blue line bolstered by the arrival of Kevin Shattenkirk.
Here comes Cooper and the lads, back for more, gluttons. It’s another lesson learned, to go with coming up short in the Cup final in 2015, missing the playoffs in 2017, losing from ahead to Washington in 2018, to John Tortorella and Columbus sweeping them into oblivion in the first round.
Are we done with the lessons already?
Isn’t it about time this team taught one?
The Lightning went from kings to clowns. From heavyweight champ to punch line. There went the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Never mind that it has been a bad year for presidents overall.
The Lightning lost the trust factor
Forget their “window.”
The window is now.
They didn’t chase the Cup last season. Toward the end of the regular season, they chased numbers, history. It cost them. It caught up with them. By the time they ran into trouble in the playoffs, there wasn’t a thing they could do, or would do. That shiny regular season, one long dream sequence, did nothing to prepare them for their quick exit.
“Even when we played bad last season, we’d win and win and win,” Hedman said.
There is nothing left for this franchise but to go close the deal.
“You come in with a chip on your shoulder,” Coburn said. “You don’t like to be labeled. And we’ve been labeled everything.”
The roster says anything is possible again. Recent history says it’s possible, including the past two Cup winners, Washington and St. Louis, perennial also-rans until they made history.
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You are what you are until you’re not.
That’s the prongs of this Lightning season. Everything that happens will be seen through the prism of past failures. It will be that way until they lift the Cup. Fairness doesn’t factor into the equation.
Coburn remembered 2010, when the Flyers came back from a 3-0 series deficit, and a 3-0 hole in Game 7, to beat the Bruins in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal, a crushing blow to Boston. The Bruins won the Cup in 2011, beating Philadelphia along the way.
“They were a changed group,” Coburn said. “The previous year was done, and they were better for it.”
Are the Lightning better for it?
We have no idea. They played fast and furious Thursday, mistakes included, comebacks, too. Kucherov fired one home on a one-timer that beat Sergei Bobrovsky, the same Bobrovsky who shut down the Lightning for Columbus in the playoffs. Shattenkirk and Maroon scored their first Lightning goals. Ondrej Palat put the Lightning ahead for good in the third period shortly after Florida had tied it at 2.
“I didn’t like that we gave up the lead, but we got it right back,” Cooper said.
It was a grind.
Good. This team needs that.
“I think it builds a lot of character,” Shattenkirk said.
This team needs that, too.
Eleven of the Lightning’s first 15 games are on the road.
Good. Adversity will toughen them up.
“Just learning to play the right way,” Maroon said.
This Lightning season is on.
They improved to 1-0.
Bring out your dead.
Contact Martin Fennelly at email@example.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.