Underdog role returns to Tampa Bay Lightning

by Gary Shelton on April 8, 2016 · 0 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Lightning

Stamos will be missed on offense for the Bolts...

Stamos will be missed on offense for the Bolts...

Wednesday, 6 a.m.

They have lost their captain, and with him, their best chance to score.

They have lost half of their starting defense, and with Anton Stralman, their best chance to stop the other team from scoring.

They have lost, it could be argued, much of their mojo and a good deal of their swagger. They have lost that belief that most of us held that, maybe, just maybe, they can do something in these upcoming playoffs.

On the other hand, the role of the underdog has returned to the Lightning. Suddenly, they  retained their puncher's chance. They have become scrappier, and pluckier, and grittier. No one expects them to do a thing; that's a pretty good place to be.

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Did you see them Thursday night? They got a goal from Jonathan Drouin. And one from from Contra. And one from Cedric Paquette. There was still some electricity.

Oh, make no mistake. It's better to be favored. It's better to have Stamkos and Stralman. It's finer to be at full strength. No one would argue any of that. But if you're looking for silver linings, well, this team still isn't helpless. Maybe, just maybe, it can squeeze a round or two out of this season yet.

...but will he be missed more than Stralman.

...but will he be missed more than Stralman?

But if you saw the Lightning's win Thursday night, there was a freedom, an ease, to being the team no one expects to win. Players aren't quite as tense. They aren't as tight.

Elsewhere, you will find doom, followed closely by gloom. You get the feeling that the old Lightning of Takashi Okobu, the old myth, the guy who may not have even existed, fielded a team with a better chance. That Art Williams, the old revivalist preacher who could talk the ear off of a hockey player as he insulted him, stood a better chance. That the Cowboys, Koulis and Barry, made more sense than what is left of the Lightning. That Luds and Duds and Drive-by Barry and the fuzzy fax machine and Sake, not Hockey all made more sense.

None of that is true, however. Yes, the climb is steeper. But it isn't impossible. All that has happened is that the pressure of the favorite's role has been taken away. That isn't all bad. There can be the freedom of the risk-taker to the way the Bolts play. What's to lose?

Oh, it's true that the finest debate in town is whether the Bolts will miss  Stamkos more than  Stralman or the other way around.

Sure, the easy answer is Stamkos, who is the better player. He's scored 79 in two years. Not many players can match that.

Besides, the banks did not expand when Stralman was a free agent the way they will with Stamkos. But playoff hockey is about defense, remember, which makes the argument closer. Stammer has hit a lot of dry spells the last couple of years, remember? But defense doesn't slump. Stralman and his 22 minutes a game are awfully valuable.

So who is more important?

Both of them.

Of course, it isn't just those two, either. Tyler Johnson had half the goals this season as last. Ryan Callahan had 14 less. Victor Hedman is hurting. The Triplets haven't had the same impact. Shoot, the Bolts are even asking for help from Drouin, who just may change his rep as  the hold-his-breath-and-pout kid yet.

To be honest, Thursday night was exactly why Drouin was wrong when he left Syracuse and went home. He couldn't win that way. He didn't have the leverage. But going back to work, earning his way back, getting an opportunity is the preferred way to a  young player to do it. We're a long way from happily ever after, but maybe it's enough for the team and the talent to give each other a fresh look.

If nothing else, Stamkos' injury opened the door to his return. Maybe his career changes because of it. Who knows?

Do the Bolts have enough firepower left to steal a round? Do they have enough defense? Maybe.

So it's easy to pooh-pooh the chances of the Bolts as they enter their first round playoff. But you know, hockey isn't that simple. This is a proud team with a lot of fight to it. Ben Bishop gives you a chance. Ondrej Palat gives you a chance. Alex Killorn gives you a chance. And Brian Boyle and J.T. Brown and Nikita Kucherov and Jason Garrison and the rest of the them.

Look, it's hard to stretch this team into a Cup-winner. We all know that. Still, there is a lot to like. If Bishop can get on roll, and if the Triplets get hot, and if the defense holds.

Then … maybe.

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