Tuesday, 3 a.m.
At a time like this, a team can warm itself in the knowledge that it barely missed.
Golly, it was charging at the end. Gee, it had enough points to make the post-season in other years. Willikers , it overcame a lot of injuries. Wow, it was almost good enough.
Ah, but for the good of the franchise, the Lightning need to think about other things, too. About losing bad games to bad teams. About a defense than spent too much time staring at the rafters instead of watching opposing players skate by them. About the nights when the intensity didn't match the need for it. It needs to remember the disappointment, the disgust, the frustration. Right now, that can help for next year a lot more than the warm and fuzzy feelings that come with almost mattering.
The Bolts need to remember all those nights of finishing second. The need to cling to those days of a team not being able to dig itself out of the grave it fashioned. They need to carry memories of those days of looking at the standings and seeing too many teams piled on top of Tampa Bay.
Those are the nights that led this team to being eliminated from the post-season.Those are the moments the Lightning cannot afford to forget. Those are the nights that soft fans will be too willing to live with.
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Here's the point. The Lightning need to fuel themselves, not fool themselves. In the end, the Lightning finished only three points behind last year's finish, but still, this season wasn't nearly good enough. The Bolts ended up fifth in their division, tied for ninth in their conference. No one should be happy over that. This season was one of the great underachievements in the history of Tampa Bay sports. There was too much watching this team spin its wheels while trusting tomorrow.
For the Lightning, the end really wasn't that frustrating. The Lightning finished strong. The team got great seasons from Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point. Andrei Vasilevskiy had nights were he looked as if he could be his team's No. 1 goalie. There were points from nowhere, from Yanni Gourde and Adam Erne and the others. They were the Light Brigade, and the team missed the playoffs by just one game.
You can fool yourself with that kind of misdirection. You can remember that Vasilevskiy will be a year older and Steven Stamkos will be back in the lineup and Ryan Callahan and the rest.You can shrug off this as a lost season.
But the Lightning don't need to do that. They need to remind themselves of how the early season got away from them. They need to remember the way they lost Arizona and to Colorado. They need to remember a defense that sprung leaks. They need to admit they finished behind more teams in the Eastern Conference than they finished ahead of.
An old scout told me this once: At the end of the season, forget about the numbers. Simply ask yourself if the season was one of overachievement or underachievement. Is there any doubt that this season was a disappointment?
You know who the Lightning were in 2017? They were the Bucs, only better paid with better resumes. That's all. And, hey, with 16 teams making the
playoffs, you ought to be disappointed. Frankly, you ought to be ticked.
This is where Steve Yzerman can be at his best. Remember back in 2013? Most of us were still giving the Lightning a pass for reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 2011. But Yzerman thought the team needed youth, and he thought that Jon Cooper, not Guy Bouchard, was the guy to lead it. So Yzerman began to retool his roster.
Now, he's there again. This team needs a top four defensive player. It could use a little more muscle, a little more grit. No, nothing is wrong with a team with Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, Jonathan Drouin, Killorn and Tyler Johnson on it. But if the goal is winning the Cup, you can't simply count on being healthy again to do it.
The Lightning needs to remember what it felt like on Feb. 4, when they were in butt-naked last place in the Eastern Conference with 52 points. They need to remember what it felt like leaving the ice after losing their second game (out of two) against Arizona. They need to remember losing 4-0 to the Bruins in an all-important game.
I know, I know. The Bolts were a final two team two years ago and a final four team last year. Even considering that, they need more work than the average contender. Everyone can see the holes.
I've asked this before: But what if Vasilevskiy isn't the answer. Oh, he finished strong with an 6-1-1 record in his last eight. And he's much younger than most goalies who have been a long-term impact for their teams. But youth doesn't guarantee success. Vasi still has to prove he can carry the mail for a full season.
Is Braydon Coburn too long in the tooth? Jason Garrison? Even Anton Stralman showed some signs of slowing down this year.
Is there enough firepower? You'd think so if Stamkos can come back to rejoin Kucherov. But Killorn didn't have a great year. Jonathan Drouin takes your breath away in flashes, but shouldn't he be more of a consistent threat? Did this team miss the way Callahan mixes it up in front of the net?
This year, this team simply wasn't good enough. A late-season charge doesn't change that. It's a bottom line business, and the bottom line is that Amalie Arena is closed for a while now.
The Bolts need to remember the things that went wrong.
They need to make sure there is no repeat.