tampa bay lightning the free press e1598801685159

Skate Circles Around Some Demons

August 7, 2020

By: Martin Fennelly

TAMPA, Fla.- The Rays are suddenly scuffling about their new baseball season. Tom Brady and the Bucs are working their way into training camp.

And then there is our hockey team. You know, the boys.

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Talk about social distancing. The Lightning are in Canada. They will remain there, inside the NHL bubble, until their season ends one way or another. It is deathly quiet in Toronto’s empty arena. You can almost hear the Stanley Cup getting older. It’s beyond weird. But Tampa Bay’s hockey team looks more than alive after two games of this strange round-robin seeding tournament, with wins over the Capitals, who eliminated the Lightning in 2018, and the Bruins, who had the most points in hockey before this round robin.

So much for that. The Lightning will play the Flyers on Saturday for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Now, we all know what the Lightning did with their top seed last year, so relax. But make it two wins in two games for the Bolts, in a shootout over Washington and a 3-2 win over Boston on a late goal Tyler Johnson, who as postseason sensation in 2015 scored in the very last second to beat Montreal in a playoff game. It was like old magic, the kind that makes you think the Lightning might finally be ready to make a righteous run, do some heavy lifting (how much does the Cup weigh again?) and skate circles around some demons.

Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s just two games. Remember when the Lightning jumped all over former Bolts coach John Tortorella and Columbus is the opening round last season, only to have it all collapse in a seismic fold that must be in Lightning frontal lobes as they hit the ice this time around. And that is a good thing. And to think Jon Cooper’s team initially protested when the round-robin was invented as the NHL came out of the COVID shadows.

Nikita Kucherov, league MVP turned embarrassing playoff bust last playoff season, looks superb. So does Brayden Point. They both scored in the shootout win over Washington. Victor Hedman and Alex Killorn look ready. Andrei Vasilevskiy let in some cheapies in surrendering 2-0 leads to both the Caps and the Bruins, but he was strong enough when it mattered. And Steven Stamkos isn’t even back yet. It feels like playoff hockey, and this feels like an early Lightning run.

Tampa Bay doesn’t look ready to be pushed around, as it was when the Caps shocked the Lightning in 2018 or as the Blue Jackets swept them to oblivion last year. Both of those teams met the Lightning in the neutral zone and threw down. I still remember the pathetic sight of Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn getting beaten up as he tried to go toe-to-toe with Washington ruffian Tom Wilson.

So far, this feels like the playoffs, quiet or no, and the Lightning are giving as good, or even better than they get. different.

They dished out 48 hits against the Caps in a feverish afternoon of hockey, then followed it up with more mixing it up with the Bruins. Washington and Boston now play to see who finishes last in the round-robin.

The Lightning appear to be rounding into the kind of team they need to be in the playoffs, not those performance artists who were reduced to rubble the last two postseasons. At this point, no one is going to trust these guys and all their style points until they get it done in the playoffs, weird playoffs got run out of buildings by the Caps and Jackets. These Bolts have stared into the abyss and the abyss has rumbled over them, style points not counting for anything.

Maybe Tampa Bay has learned that lesson. Winning is all that matters at this time of year, not how you win, though there has never been this particular time of year before. The Lightning will have to grind through this strange postseason, heads down, maybe even fists clenched, just grinding and more grinding before they mask up and leave the building. Last season was a different kind of unmasking. Last year, Kucherov and his tiny teammates learned how heart is everything, the grind ifs everything.

After all the past disappointments, all the underachieving, the ghosts of last season, this might be the best kind of Lightning at just the right moment, far away from home, from Lightning fans and bedlam. A country away. In the spectacular quiet, in the middle of this silent movie, wouldn’t it be something if the Lightning finally made the noise everyone has been waiting for? That would include them.

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