For the Lightning, the playoffs must start now

by Gary Shelton on February 22, 2016 · 0 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Lightning

Stamkos brings the puck forward./ANDREW J. KRAMER

Stamkos brings the puck forward./ANDREW J. KRAMER

Monday, 6 a.m.

Cue the music. Start growing the beards. Turn on the bright lights.

The NHL playoffs have begun.

Oh, not officially, of course. There is still a little more weeding out to do. There is still momentum to be gained. But, if a team wants to play then, it had better play now.

For the Tampa Bay Lightning, that means it's finally time to turn loose of all the flaws. For most of the season, the Lightning has sputtered, and it's had as many inexplicable slumps as

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exciting streaks. Perhaps that isn't surprising, given that Tyler Johnson

hasn't been the same spark plug this year as last, that the team's

Johnson hasn't had the same impact ./ANDREW J. KRAMER

Johnson hasn't had the same impact ./ANDREW J. KRAMER

scoring has evaporated, that Ondrej Palat has missed so much time. Steven Stamkos hasn't been the same guy. Much of the terrific season of Ben Bishop has been hidden by the scoring problems.

For the Lightning, it is finally time to put that behind it. The Lightning is currently on a three-game winning streak, but if this season has shown us nothing else, it is how quickly good fortune can turn to bad.

The thing is, this is the time of year that we will remember. It has always been that way. The final two dozen games of a season, and the post-season, are all that really counts in this game. No one remembers how good you were in November, except for the shape it left you in going into December.

Put it this way: The Lightning has had three truly great seasons in its history. The Stanley Cup Championship of 2004. The Eastern Conference runners-up in 2010. The Stanley Cup runners-up of a year ago.

For all of them, this was when the team gave gas to its season.

Go back to 2004. It was in late February that the team went on a 10-0-1 tear. Marty St. Louis scored eight goals down the stretch. Nikolai Khabibulin, who had been benched earlier in the season, found his groove. And the Lightning entered the playoffs feeling good about itself.

Then there was 2010. Goalie Dwayne Roloson would run out of gas in the playoffs, but he played well down the stretch. Steven Stamkos scored 14 goals to push the Bolts into the post-season. And the team took Boston to seven games before losing.

Then there was last season. Bishop was strong in the season's final games. Stamkos scored 10 goals. And the team kept it up until their series against Chicago.

The point is this. Hockey is a free-flow, ad-lib sport that relies greatly on confidence and momentum. Your better teams do not limp into the playoffs. They attack it like Attila.

The great thing about sports, of course, is the unscripted ending of it. These days, you can build a case where the Lightning would sweep into the playoffs, and you can make a case that they will miss them altogether.

So what has to happen with this Lightning team?

Bishop has to be great. Johnson needs to get the magic back. Palat needs to be the glue again. Kucherov needs to continue to be a blur. Hedman needs to keep playing well with Anton Stralman. And coach Jon Cooper, finally, needs to find that spark that separated the Lightning from the rest of the league.

Most of all, Steven Stamkos has to be an elite player again. The most commen statement in hockey, and the truest, is that your best players have to be your best players in the biggest time of the year.

For the moment, it doesn't matter what's been eating at Stamkos. It doesn't matter if his new contract has been on his mind. From now on, he needs to be among the best players in the NHL. This season, he hasn't been.

Look, there is great room for role-players, J.T. Brown and Brian Boyle and Valterri Filppula. But if the Lightning are going to be a special team down the stretch, it will need special players.

Can the Lightning make the playoffs? Sure it can.

But it starts now.

Bishop has to remain steady in the net./ANDREW J. KRAMER

Bishop has to remain steady in the net./ANDREW J. KRAMER

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