Something is wrong when the Lightning celebrate a win against the Flyers

John Romano | Beatdowns like Tuesday night’s victory against Philly used to be commonplace around here. But Tampa Bay has been in the doldrums for so long, this almost felt like a victory worth applauding.
Nikita Kucherov accepts congratulatory fist bumps after scoring one of his two goals in a 5-2 victory against Philadelphia on Tuesday night that ended a five-game Lightning losing streak.
Nikita Kucherov accepts congratulatory fist bumps after scoring one of his two goals in a 5-2 victory against Philadelphia on Tuesday night that ended a five-game Lightning losing streak. [ MIKE CARLSON | AP ]
Published March 8

TAMPA — The defense? Fixed. The attitude? Adjusted. The losing streak? In the past.

All of Tampa Bay’s problems were solved in 60 minutes Tuesday night in a 5-2 win against the Flyers. So put all your fears away, there’s nothing left to worry about around here.

At least until the Lightning go on the road again. Or play a quality opponent. Or fall into another self-pitying, everyone-is-mean-to-us abyss.

If you thought panic was overblown during the recent five-game skid, then you might also want to hold off on the redemption storylines after Tuesday night’s uneven affair. Even coach Jon Cooper seemed grouchy after the Flyers basically played the Lightning to a mano-a-mano deadlock in even-strength situations.

Cooper tepidly praised his team for bouncing back after falling behind 1-0 early against one of the worst offensive teams in the NHL but demurred when asked if that kind of resolve had been missing lately.

“Hmm, I don’t know,” Cooper said. “I just liked the response.”

The truth is, 64 games into a season, we’re still not sure what to make of this Lightning team.

They’re good. No question about that. They’ll make the playoffs, they’ll earn some ovations, they may even flirt with 100 points again.

But are they scary good? Are they legacy good?

Are they Stanley Cup good?

That’s still up for debate. It’s dangerous to write this team off considering they’ve shown a remarkable propensity to rise to the occasion in the playoffs, but it’s been a long time since the Lightning have looked this disinterested in the regular season. Their .633 points percentage is their lowest since the Jonathan Drouin days of 2016-17, which is the last time Tampa Bay failed to make the playoffs.

They’re too reckless with the puck, they give up too many odd-man rushes and they seem too casual about losing games against inferior opponents.

But — and this is neither flippant nor sarcastic — maybe they’ve earned that right.

The Lightning have played a ton of on-the-edge postseason games in the past three years, and it’s undoubtedly difficult to maintain that same razor focus for a midweek game against Philadelphia. Or Buffalo. Or any other team hungry to prove themselves against NHL royalty.

“It’s tough to remember, but we’ve been in situations like this the past couple of years,” forward Alex Killorn said before scoring two goals against the Flyers Tuesday night. “We just have to make sure we can find our way out again. It’s not going to happen in one game. We have to build, and build the right way.

“It’s nice when you understand that and you’ve been on a team that’s been through so much and seen so much. You have experiences through adversity. I think in a month we’re going to look a lot different. But we’re not looking ahead yet. We’ve still got to get there.”

That’s where the hope lies. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that’s how the coming weeks will play out.

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But there is also a nagging suspicion that this is not the same Lightning group. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point and Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy are all still here, but Ondrej Palat is not. Nor is Ryan McDonagh. And a half-dozen other key members of past championship teams.

Maybe this is the beginning of a slide back toward vulnerability.

The Lightning might have convinced themselves that they can turn it on again when the calendar flips to April, but what if that’s no longer possible with the amount of talent they’ve lost? Maybe this is who they are today. Maybe this is what a top-heavy roster looks like.

If you forced me to guess, I’d say this team is far better than what the Atlantic Division standings say this morning. I think you’ll see a different mindset, a different intensity, a different style of play when the postseason kicks in.

But I’m still not sure it will be enough.

And how long has it been since that was even a question in Tampa Bay?

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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