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Forget the standings, Lightning are still the team to beat in the NHL

John Romano | No, Tampa Bay is not running away with a division title. But with the playoffs looming, would you trade this roster for any other in the NHL?
They may be currently chasing the Panthers and Hurricanes in the division, but the Lightning have been winning at a ridiculous pace for a very long time. It's not hard to imagine more celebrations such as this in the near future.
They may be currently chasing the Panthers and Hurricanes in the division, but the Lightning have been winning at a ridiculous pace for a very long time. It's not hard to imagine more celebrations such as this in the near future. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Apr. 27
Updated Apr. 27

TAMPA — We are at the brink of the NHL playoffs, and the Lightning have arrived fashionably late.

Three teams in the Western Conference clinched berths ahead of Tampa Bay, and so did Carolina in the Lightning’s own division. This might have been disheartening in another time and season, but it feels just about right for the defending Stanley Cup champions.

The goal was never to win March and April, but to own May and June. And since the Lightning have nothing to prove to us or to themselves, a more measured approach to preparation seems like the way to go.

The trick is not to obsess over the division standings. For much of the past few weeks, the Lightning have been a few steps behind both Carolina and Florida in the Central Division, which has given the impression that they have somehow underperformed.

And on certain nights, that’s been true. There have even been some week-long stretches that could be called disappointing, too. But this is more of a problem of unrealistic expectations than actual deficiencies.

Here’s what I mean:

The Lightning went into Tuesday night’s game against Chicago with a season points percentage of .688. Not only was that higher than what they did last regular season, but it puts them on pace to have the best regular-season record of a defending champion in more than 25 years.

Think about that. Steve Yzerman’s Detroit teams? Patrick Roy’s Colorado teams? Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh teams? Alex Ovechkin’s Washington team? None of them ever followed up a Stanley Cup title with a winning percentage higher than .688 the following season.

There are a lot of reasons for that, not the least of which is a winning percentage that high is hard to pull off in any context. But it’s also just human nature for players to take a deep breath once they’ve reached the NHL summit.

Teams with championship rings in their lockers are already anticipating another postseason berth, and they usually have enough confidence and skill to get there without constantly playing at 100 mph during the next regular season.

That doesn’t mean the Lightning have been slackers the past few months. After all, they’ve played without Nikita Kucherov the entire regular season and have now gone several weeks without Steven Stamkos, too. They’ve also spent quite some time trying to figure out the right defensive formula after losing Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian to free agency.

But Tampa Bay players and coaches knew a playoff berth was in their future as long as they were marginally aware of the scoreboard on a nightly basis. The more important goal was to get everyone working on the same page as the postseason approached.

With that in mind, I asked coach Jon Cooper how close the Lightning were to being the team he wanted them to be in late April.

“That’s hard to say. I want to be a team that makes the playoffs … and then once we get in, I want to be the team that wins the Stanley Cup,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of good things this year. You don’t get to 30-plus wins by fluke. Happy with a lot of the things that have gone on.

“It’s a battle. It was a unique situation with these divisions. It’s been a grind. It’s going to be a grind the rest of the way out here. I’m just proud of our guys … and hopefully if we do get in we can take another step, and I’m sure we will.”

That does not sound like the voice of a man overly concerned about his team struggling to put together a winning streak in the past six weeks. The Lightning may have been a little sloppy at times in April, but they typically put together a solid performance when the situation demands it.

The bottom line is winning back-to-back Stanley Cup titles is not an easy thing to do. That’s why only one team has done it in the past two decades. The challenge and vagaries of four rounds of playoffs make for extreme odds even for the best of teams.

If the Lightning fall short, it won’t be because they finished behind Carolina or Florida in the regular season, or somehow lost their way after winning it all last season.

Here’s another way of looking at it:

Now that the playoffs are just around the corner, and Kucherov and Stamkos are both expected to return to the lineup, do you think Cooper would want to trade places with any other coach in his conference? In the NHL?

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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