Lightning finally lose, but they made you care

by Gary Shelton on May 27, 2016 · 3 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Lightning

Cooper's team was at its best in the post-season.

Cooper's team was at its best in the post-season.

Friday, 6 a.m.

The wounds are fresh now. The heartache is brand new. The couch is freshly kicked and who knows where you threw the remote control.

But when it all over, when the sting has subsided and reason returns to your living room, what will you think then?

How will you remember this Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team?

Were they underachievers? Were they overachievers? Did they last longer than they had any right? Or did they die too soon?

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Drouin seems to have won himself a spot in the linup for a long time.

Drouin seems to have won himself a spot in the linup for a long time.

"Everybody that plays in this league and coaches in this league knows how hard it is to just get to the final or get this far in the playoffs," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "We didn't reach a goal to win a Stanley Cup, but I'm pretty sure not a lot of people were picking us to get this far, especially with the catastrophic injuries we had to extremely important players on our team at the beginning of the playoffs.

"And we just started plugging other guys in, and players were just rising to the occasion. You know, it's tough to go injury free. Usually the teams that keep going have -- you know, they stay injury free for the most part, and we didn't. We got hurt before the playoffs, during the playoffs, and then maybe it caught up to us. But as I said, even with a full lineup, that's a heck of a team over there. We pushed them to Game 7. We just couldn't get over the hump

Maybe I'm a soft grader, but I think this Lightning team reinvented itself during the playoffs. For most of the regular season, they were this odd Jekyll and Hyde creation that could play to whatever level of whatever opponent they had. They could go on mysterious walkarounds with their offense. They could leave their goaltender out to dry. At every point you thought the mojo was returning, the Bolts would stub their toe anew. It was a vexing, frustrating season.

Ah, but in the post-season, the Bolts recaptured the magic. A lesser team would have surrendered to the injuries to Steven Stamkos, to Anton Stralman, to Ben Bishop. This one was spunky, and it was resilient, and it made you like them all over again.

That, perhaps, was why Thursday night's final act was kind of tough to swallow. Heck, if you're honest, most of the final series against Pittsburgh was tough to see. The Penguins averaged 39 shots a game. The Bolts seemed to give up the middle too easily. They let Pittsburgh come back from three-games-to-two deficit.

So, yeah, it hurts. But let's be honest. Pittsburgh's talent was a more than 4-3 better than the Lightning. Given how few shots the Bolts managed, and how many non-scorers it had on the ice, it was a pretty impressive feat to be tied 3-3. Be honest. When you watch Pittsburgh's offense, don't you want to call time and re-pick teams.

Think of what this Lightning team overcame. Think of the season-long staredown with Steven Stamkos. Think of the pout-off with Jonathan Drouin. Think of all the time Tyler Johnson missed. And Ondrej Palat. Think of an out-of-tune violin; that's what the Lightning was for most of the season.

Think of the streak when they won only three of 12 games in October and November. Think of them closing out by losing three out of four, an image that made most of us wonder if they were ready for these playoffs.

All of those memories are in the scrapbook now. This Lightning team changed the way you will think about Drouin. They changed the way you think about Alex Killorn and Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan.

Stamkos. We'll see how his drama plays out. Even before the contract, however, there are those who will debate Stamkos' final act. There will be those who will think that returning Stamkos to the lineup after 22 games as a bit of desperation. But in a perfect world, Stamkos comes back — and gives his team a Willis Reed-type burst of energy. He plays on a few power plays. His time on the ice is limited.

The problem is, the Lightning didn't get much power play time. Still, Stamkos had a couple of scoring chances, which justified his place in the lineup.

That was a problem with this series, though. The Lightning had no ammunition. Remember the high-powered Triplets. Tyler Johnson didn't' have a shot. Palat had one. Kucherov had two.

Those are the thoughts that will come to mind today in your disappointment. But it's true. Not many of us thought this team could make it to the Final Four. If there is a letdown because they didn't make the Finals, well, that might be the greatest accomplishment this team had.

They made you care.

Pretty cool, huh?

Vasilevskiy spent seven games on the firing line.TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

Vasilevskiy spent seven games on the firing line.TRAVIS PENDERGRASS

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Rick Martin May 27, 2016 at 7:16 pm

Sometimes I respect players more by how the lose rather than how they win. I really enjoyed watching this team in the playoffs, and I’m not a huge hockey fan. I can imagine they feel very bad today and will for a few days. They represented the TB area well, though. I don’t know much about hockey, but they seem to exceed expectations, especially after losing three top players.

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Bill Myers May 27, 2016 at 6:22 pm

I am proud of the Bolts. They should be proud of this season too. Back to back playoff trips are something any sports team should be proud of. If the Rays or Bucs could do that just one time that would be a beautiful thing! So how about next season? Do you think Bishop or Stamkos will still be in Tampa? Talent wise can we afford to trade them?

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Jim Willson May 27, 2016 at 12:44 pm

Great column Gary. I agree totally….they definitely made me care. With all the injuries, it is amazing what they accomplished this year. Also, they made me think that we will be OK if Stammer leaves….Drouin made me like him again…all in all…a great season.

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