I've got some empathy for the 2014-15 Tampa Bay Lightning. See, last year we at the THN offices decided to grow playoff beards, based on the team we predicted to win the Stanley Cup. I went with the Bolts and watched them go all the way to the final.
And by the way, I can grow a beard in like, a weekend. So things got bushy. Weighty, even. I did not like it and it all felt so empty when Chicago ended up taking the title. Needless to say, I know the actual Bolts took it harder.
But Tampa Bay is still a top NHL franchise and this year holds promise, too. Only thing is, getting back to the Cup final after losing the previous season is really, really hard.
In fact, no team has done it since Pittsburgh beat Detroit in 2009, one season after losing to those same Red Wings. The Rangers have come close, but that's it. And the Lightning know the challenge is there. That emotional hangover is real, but the reward is still in sight.
“You are exhausted," said center Tyler Johnson. "But at the same time it fuels you, you want to go back. It was a lot of fun playing there and it’s what we want to do. The beginning of the season was a little rough, but it’s always better to finish the year strong.”
The Bolts are 6-3-1 in their past 10 games, though the losses are all recent. They've basically locked up a playoff spot in the thin Atlantic Division and in terms of attitude, they're in a good place right now after scuffling early in the season.
“Since New Year’s we’ve been playing some good hockey," said defenseman Victor Hedman. "Defensively we’ve been playing pretty good all year, but our problem early on was scoring goals. We’re playing the way we want to play in the playoffs right now and getting contributions from everybody.”
Johnson also cited injuries (he himself missed 13 games before the calendar flipped to 2016) and "what-not" as having an affect on the team and I can't help assume "what-not" includes the distractions of Jonathan Drouin's suspension and Steven Stamkos' potential trade/contract talks. But those are my words, not his.
Nevertheless, the Bolts are past all that for now and looking ahead to redemption in the post-season. While Washington has been the darling of the East, I can't help look at Tampa's superior possession numbers and wonder if the Lightning will fight their way back to the final. If they can, the players can draw from last year for guidance – not just the Chicago series, but also the opening round win over the Red Wings, a seven-game nail-biter.
“You learn what it takes," Johnson said. "You have to put everything on the line, every single game. Any team can win a series; it’s pretty unbelievable how close this league is. It’s really a battle of will and effort and it comes down to that last shift. It was a valuable experience for us, that you can’t ‘skill’ your way to the Stanley Cup, it’s really all about effort. We learned that the first series against Detroit and that moulded us for playoff hockey.”
As for the build-up of games that comes from a long run with no glory, Hedman still took a few weeks off to recover, so the off-season wasn't that different in the long-run.
“It was a little bit shorter – but a short summer is good in our business," he said. "You can’t rest too long and I hit the ice pretty quickly. That was my mindset going in.”
And now the mindset is Cup or bust. With Hedman leading the blueline, Johnson part of a deep offensive attack that can still improve, and Ben Bishop once again a top netminder in the league, the Bolts have all the elements. All they have to do is prove the curse wrong.