Tampa Bay Lightning Need to be the Hunter Again

Life isn’t fair.

And, so it is that the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning, having finally gotten over the top, raised their championship banner Wednesday night before they unfurled a resounding 5-1 season-opening win … in front of no one. COVID concerns kept faithful Bolts fans out of the building. A cable TV dispute kept a lot of people from even being able to watch the game.

Did we mention that Brady and the Bucs are going strong?

Feels like the Edmonton Cup bubble all over again.

What’s a Stanley Cup winner going to do?

Win it again.

Forget that training camp lasted six minutes. Why, there are guys who still have all their teeth.

No matter.

“We’re the defending Cup champs, so now we’ve got the bulls-eye on our back,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told media. “We’re not getting the night off that maybe other teams might when you play some other teams. That’s not happening to us. So that’s when you test the maturity of your team and see where we’re at. … I fully believe we can win again.”

First, the good news: The NHL season has been shortened to 56 games, and it will be limited to division during the season, divisions have been realigned, partly in the name of less travel, and the Lightning, now in the Central, are big winners. No Bruins to worry about, for one thing. 

The Lightning opened Wednesday against the now weakling Blackhawks. They next play on Friday against … the Blackhawks. That’s the way it will go all season, bunches of the same team, right out of the Harlem Globetrotters-Washington Generals playbook.

In other good news, the defending champs are generally intact. Yes, there a few missing faces (Kevin Shattenkirk, Brayden Coburn, Cedric Paquette), but Victor Hedman, the best defenseman in hockey, is back, as is Andrei Vasilevskiy, the best goalie in hockey. The sensational Brayden Point is back, as captain Steven Stamkos, but nevertheless having lifted the Cup in Edmonton.

In bad news, only one team, the Penguins, has won consecutive Cups since the cap era began after 2005.

In still worse news, the Lightning’s most dynamic star, Nikita Kucherov, will miss the regular season after hip surgery.

And then there is the elephant in the mask in the room: the virus. COVID looms over this season, testing, quarantines, taxi squads, the works. The Dallas Stars, who the Lightning beat for the Cup, are already waylaid by positive tests, forcing as early rematch with the Bolts to be postponed. This could be just the start. COVID might turn out to be the Lightning’s toughest opponent.

How do you make a Cup run with that?

Understand, it’s nothing new for this franchise. Its parade has been rained on before. The team won its first Cup in 2004, a magical run spearheaded by household names like St. Louis, Lecavalier and Richards. Tampa Bay became HockeyTown. Everyone was ready for the repeat

Only there wasn’t one. The owners and league locked out players over a salary-cap dispute and there went any semblance of a Cup defense.

By the time the 2005-06 season rolled around, the Lightning had lost goalie Nikolai Khabibulin and some of their zip. They were knocked out by Ottawa in the first round of the playoffs.

On to this season. It doesn’t line up as a slam dunk, and a short season certainly won’t tolerate early indifference.

The good thing about being a champ, finally, is that you finally know the way. The Lightning will pretty much be the best team on the ice night after night. Yes, they will get everyone’s best game. They will be the hunted, not the hunters.

I still like their chances. It’s like Lightning center Alex Killorn told media.

“Now that we’ve been there, you’re even more hungry to get another.”

The Cup banner was raised Wednesday. It was quiet at Amalie Arena. The Lightning deserved better than that, as did their fans. Maybe the fans will be back. It’s the time we live in. What are you going to do?

Do it again.

The Lightning are off and winning.

Anyone hear a dinner bell ring?

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