Tuesday, 4 a.m.
They teased you again Monday afternoon.
Once again, they looked like a hockey team. For the briefest of time, they made you think the season was not yet over. As a holiday special, they beat the Kings on Martin Luther King Day, and in so doing, they looked good enough for the post-season..
So do you buy in?
Or did you think the Lightning is just flirting with you again?
They do this every now and then, you know. You'll give them up for dead, and you'll prepare to leave them by the side of the road until general manager Stevie Yzerman makes
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the roster a little bigger, a little more dependable. It's mid-January, and you have grown weary of waiting for them to switch on the light. It's beyond the season's halfway point, and you have tired of waiting for the Lightning to be what you expected them to be.
And then they have a game like Monday, when they ground out a nice little win over the L.A. Kings.
Just like that, they dare you to buy in again.
By now, all we have seen are shortcomings of the roster. The defensemen look like Raheem Morris is coaching them. The goalies are struggling to remain above .500. The offense sputters. But every now and then, the Lightning has a nice game to remind you of what you thought they would be.
And so the league has passed the Lightning by. Going into Monday's game, they had to get around five teams to even to qualify as wild-card. That's a lot of teams to pass in the months ahead. Think of the Lightning as standing at the bottom of the hill, having to out climb a lot of teams that have head starts.
Has there been a clue that they can do it? A month? A week? A weekend?
Remember, this team hasn't won three games in a row since mid-November. It's won two in a row only once since Nov. 19. It's on a treadmill in the mud. It hasn't gone anywhere for a while.
Yet, days like Monday let you believe they can do it. If only they don't run out of time. If the focus is there, if the energy, if the willingness to absorb the pain in front of the net.
The Bolts played a nice little game against the Kings. Jonathan Drouin made a nifty pass to Tyler Johnson for a goal. Brian Boyle, who might lead this team in effort, scored another one on a rebound. Ben Bishop won his second straight, stopping 28 of 29.
But with the Lightning, you believe at your own peril. Time and again, they have laughed at those who continue to believe they will hit the switch any game now.
Remember Nov. 23, when the Lightning earned a tough win over Philadelphia? After that, they lost four in a row. Then there was Dec. 3, and a 2-1 win over Washington. Then they lost three in a row. There was Dec. 31, when the team beat Carolina 3-1. Then they lost four in a row.
That isn't a playoff push.
That's the Cleveland Browns' approach to success.
There are times they can take your breath away, like Monday, when Drouin hit Johnson. That was a highlight-reel play, the kind you've been used to seeing from this team over the past two years (when it was second and tied for third in the NHL playoffs).
“That’s what elite offensive-minded players can make, and Jo is elite in that regard,” said coach Jon Cooper. “A lot of good things happen when he has the puck on his stick, and when you get yourself open, there’s a good chance he’s going to be able to find you. He did a great job protecting the puck. He beat his man, and now you give him a little bit of open space to make a play and Johnny opened up. The key was, it’s not so much he found Johnson, he put it right in Johnson’s wheelhouse. When you’re able to do that, give the guys a chance to score, and that’s what Jo did.”
The thing is, it hasn't happened enough. That fooled most of us. The Lightning was so good in taking up the slack when Steven Stamkos was hurt last year that we thought they'd automatically do it again. They haven't.
But there are shortcomings on this team. Braydon Coburn seems as if he belongs in an old-timer's game. It has exposed the goaltenders. There is still some scoring ability, but Tyler Johnson is still short of his all-star year.
If anything, the Lightning's biggest flaw in the off-season was that it stopped at re-signing its assets. Perhaps it should have looked to improve the roster. To make it bigger, tougher. Maybe the Lightning thought that would happen after it traded Ben Bishop away; still, lately, the Lightning should be glad it didn't.
That's the problem as the Lightning starts its second half. What do they do well? Are they a great scoring team? Not really. Are they a solid defensive team? No. Goaltending? No. Power play? No.
From here, this might be the toughest task that Yzerman has had. He's going to take a team where players have built up a lot of goodwill, and he has to make it better. He has to figure out who his goaltender is (lately, it's looked like Bishop.) He has to move the Lightning from a pretty good team to a very good one.
Also, he has to do it fast.
Or watch the playoffs on TV.