Steven Stamkos’ tone of voice following the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Sunday loss to the Carolina Hurricanes said it all. In a game in which the Bolts had jumped out to a 3-1 lead after the first frame, the Hurricanes proceeded to take the contest to the Lightning over the final 40-plus minutes. Matter of fact, from the time Stamkos’ tally put Tampa Bay ahead by two with minutes remaining in the opening period on through to Jaccob Slavin’s winner 1:53 into overtime, Carolina was so dominant, so smothering, that the Lightning mustered just two shots.
And so, when Stamkos met with media following the defeat, he offered up an honest assessment of what went wrong with the kind of cadence that’s usually reserved for a parent telling a child that they’re not mad, just disappointed.
“We just got totally outclassed by a team that was hungry to play, had a game plan, played to their structure,” Stamkos told reporters. “We just continue to be the freewheeling team that thinks that we can come into games and win because we’re skilled. I don’t know how many times we can just continue to try to keep doing the same things. We saw the results in the playoffs last year, we talked about it in camp – trying to change the way we play – and we just keep falling back into the same old bad habits that we’ve been doing that cost us the season that we had last year.”
Now, it should go without saying that the result of the third game of the season is no need for some sort of sky-is-falling, what’s-wrong-with-the-Lightning hysteria. It should also go without saying that losses to a much-improved Florida Panthers club and a Hurricanes team that is expected to fight for one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference aren’t quite the same as back-to-back defeats at the hands of, oh, draft lottery favorites such as the Ottawa Senators and Los Angeles Kings. At the same time, though, it’s also true that a 1-1-1 start isn’t what most expected from a Tampa Bay team that entered this season with plenty to prove, maybe more than any other team in the league. And it’s especially not what most expected out of the gate from a team with the breadth of talent the Lightning possess.
Maybe, though, this is exactly what Tampa Bay needs early in the season, and maybe Sunday’s contest can serve as an (admittedly very early) wakeup call for a Lightning team that wants nothing more than to erase all memory of last season’s stunning and historic playoff defeat.
Throughout last season, and particularly in the weeks leading up to the post-season, the most common criticism of the Lightning was that Tampa Bay was a team that hadn’t faced much adversity throughout the season. At the time, some may have chalked that up as a way to criticize an almost-unassailable squad. And frankly, there’s probably some truth to that.
By the time the post-season rolled around, the Lightning were fresh off of tying the NHL record for regular season wins and had finished atop the league in scoring, surrendered the seventh-fewest goals, had the top power play, top penalty kill and, in the weeks that followed, saw personnel nominated for almost every major award. Later, Nikita Kucherov collected the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award to add to the Art Ross Trophy he had already won with a league-high 128 points. Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. Victor Hedman finished third in Norris Trophy voting and coach Jon Cooper was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award. Where do you poke holes in a team that was that good for that long?
But life wasn't as easy once the post-season began, and the argument that Tampa Bay could buckle given they hadn’t faced real pressure seemed to start carrying some water once the first-round got underway. After the Lightning blew a Game 1 lead against the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets and were walloped in Game 2 to fall into a 2-0 hole, Cooper said himself that maybe life had been too easy.
“Have we faced a ton of adversity this year?” Cooper told reporters in the midst of April’s playoff series. “We haven’t. I’ve been in the league six years and it probably hasn’t gone any easier than it has this year. So, now we’ve got some adversity. Teams face this all the time, and you face it in little pieces. This is a five-alarm fire, but it’s adversity and sometimes that’s good, sometimes you have to go through stuff like this and see how we respond.”
Of course, thanks to the gift of hindsight, we know how the Lightning responded: they dropped the next two contests and were swept out of the post-season in what was arguably the most humbling defeat for any Presidents’ Trophy-winning team in NHL history.
That brings us to this season, though, and where the Lightning are right now. Yes, it’s three games into the campaign, and yes, the current standings and the records hardly matter or tell us much of anything about any of the league’s 31 teams. But for Tampa Bay, the consecutive losses – a rarity last season, as the Bolts only lost two in a row twice during the 2018-19 regular season – and especially the way in which they were bossed about the ice by the Hurricanes Sunday offers the Lightning a taste of the very thing they didn’t face all of last season. It gives them an opportunity to galvanize as a group, realize what cannot happen in any given outing and what needs to change, be it in attitude or approach, in order to find a way to overcome the very obstacles they rarely, if ever, faced last season.
None of this is to say Tampa Bay needs to become last season’s St. Louis Blues. The Lightning do not need to fall to the bottom of the standings and recover to stake their claim as one of the league’s top clubs. But if they are to summit the post-season mountain and take their place as Stanley Cup champions, some speed bumps along the way might not be the worst thing in the world. Because if it brings them together early, maybe some early season discomfort can be the very thing that makes them truly unstoppable when the games matter most.
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