TAMPA — You might have noticed the Lightning have had some struggles lately.
Furthermore, you might have been stunned to see them blown out by a last-place team recently, not to mention falling out of first place in the Central Division. You might even have found yourself pondering the appropriate response. So if I may suggest:
This is the Lightning’s reward for winning the Stanley Cup last season. They get to treat the regular season like the six-month warmup that it is for most of the best teams in the National Hockey League. They get to play at an even keel while other teams go into April with hair ablaze.
Mostly, the Lightning should get the benefit of all your doubts.
In the end, that’s what winning the Cup does for a locker room. It removes those whispers and misgivings about a team having enough defense, or grit, or pixie dust to survive four rounds of playoffs.
You don’t want a team to fall into bad habits, but you also need to give veteran players room to prepare themselves at their own pace and with their own priorities. This team built itself a cushion in the standings from November to March and has no fear of falling out of the playoff picture now.
So if the Lightning’s urgency is not what you would like to see, that might be your problem more than theirs.
“When you’re not winning every single night, you’re pretty thankful that you did a lot of winning prior to this,” coach Jon Cooper said. “You just circle back to your principles and why we’ve had success and why we’ll continue to have success.”
Look, this has been a strange season. Games have been cancelled, rescheduled and piled on top of each other. The Lightning have played so many games against the same opponents, it’s like watching reruns in syndication.
There has been little time for practice, which makes it hard to pull yourself out of an inevitable funk. Put all of that together, and the potential for monotony is high for a team coming off a championship.
“As players we’d love to be able to play every team in the league and see some different opponents here and there, but at the same time we’re doing the best we can with the situation,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “It does create a little different feeling of adversity. You see teams making adjustments, special teams especially.
“It’s like any time you lose a game and you know you’re going see that same opponent, you bring a little extra that next night.”
None of this means the Lightning are perfect, or do not have work to do in the final five weeks of the regular season. The defense has not been as disciplined as it was in the fall, and has relied on Andrei Vasilevskiy to bail it out of too many rushes and breakdowns.
But the idea that Tampa Bay scorers have lost their touch at the wrong time of the season is silly. Yes, scoring is down lately. Yes, Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat have not been as consistent as earlier in the season. But, no, this will not be a problem in the postseason. Nikita Kucherov will return soon, and the Lightning will be skating circles around a lot of defenses.
If you feel the need to worry, you might want to focus on the health of the defense. Specifically, the right side of the defense. The Lightning’s latest downturn began when Erik Cernak went down with a lower body injury and, a week later, Jan Rutta followed him out of the lineup.
The injuries do not appear serious, but it could be problematic if these are lingering concerns at one of Tampa Bay’s thinnest positions.
“We’ve got an abundance of left-handed D healthy,” Cooper said Sunday, “and not too many right-handed D healthy.”
Compare those worries to a team that’s fighting for a playoff spot. Or a team that doesn’t have Vezina, Norris and Hart trophy winners in the lineup.
It would be nice if the Lightning got the No. 1 seed in the Central Division, but that’s not necessary. They were No. 2 last season, and that seemed to work out well for them.
If the 2020 season taught us anything, it’s that these guys know how — and when — to win.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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