The Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t need to embarrass the road-weary Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena on Monday night to firmly establish themselves as far-and-away the NHL’s premier team.
Though I suppose the big-city exposure never hurts.
There’s less than four weeks remaining in the regular season now, and the 30 franchises chasing the league’s alpha dog still haven’t been able to collectively eliminate the possibility of Tampa Bay submitting the greatest regular season on record in terms of total points.
As Mike Babcock described the Lightning’s slot in the hockey hierarchy before trotting an unprepared team out to slaughter earlier in the day, “they have built a program there that is obviously the envy of the league.”
But to dominate in the manner with which the Lightning have, it has required more than constructing and deploying the roster that possesses the best blend of teachable talent — which the Lightning have done, and are doing.
Now up to 110 points with a plus-89 total goal share (which is, 17 points and 42 goals better than any competitor), Tampa has opened up the separation that merely talent can’t alone across the 82-game slog that is the NHL regular season, while at the same time defying the inescapable parity that keeps the league’s franchises bunched tightly together.
To build and continue building through the aches and pains, obstacles, absences, expectations, back-to-backs, road trips, first games back from road trips, and opponents’ best shots, the Lightning have conquered the complacency that creeps into the games of teams with legitimate reason to anticipate spring.
No longer waiting on their next opportunity, the Lightning are once again in pursuit.
“When we went to the Stanley Cup Final in (my) first year, I thought that next season we were definitely feeling that way,” said Tyler Johnson, admitting to going through the motions after previous postseason disappointments.
“We kept thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t wait until the playoffs. I just want playoffs.’ And the season just went by. Then once playoffs came around, I mean, we did well, but I don’t think we were as prepared as we should have been. Then the next year again we were saying, ‘Oh I can’t wait for the playoffs,’ and we didn’t even make it,” Johnson said.
At the conclusion of his very-meta analysis of the team’s adverse responses to postseason exits, and the levels with which they have learned from them, Johnson revealed the neatly-packaged reason for the Lightning’s sustained surge throughout the season and into the final few weeks.
“We’ve been trying to get better every day so that when the playoffs do roll around, we’re ready.”
“The biggest motivation for us is to keep fine-tuning our game and get better for hopefully a deep playoff run,” Victor Hedman echoed, in less detail. “We want to play until June.”
What isn’t a carrot for the Lightning is the aforementioned chance to make history.
With 24 points still on the table over the next three-and-a-half weeks, the Lightning have the potential to establish the record for the most points ever registered in an NHL season or set a new mark for the best 82-game record in the league history.
For his part, Hedman understands the benchmarks still within reach. Unprompted, he named the Montreal Canadiens, who won 60 of their 80 games in 1976-77 and attained a record 132 points, and the Detroit Red Wings, who set the mark for modern scheduling with 131 points in 1995-96, before shutting down the suggestion that the chance to make history could be factoring into Tampa Bay’s motivations.
Johnson, meanwhile, left less room for interpretation.
“To be honest, the only people that talk about it is the media. I haven’t heard one guy on our team really say anything,” he said. “We’ve broken records that we didn’t even know were records — so we’re just playing the game, just trying to get better, trying to get ready for the playoffs, trying to focus on the things that are going to make a big difference for us.”
Perhaps the focus could change, if only briefly. What is an unrealistic objective (they’ll need to win 11 of their last 12) before considering the strengths of their opponents over the next few weeks could suddenly become more attainable if the Lightning do start into another lengthy win streak.
This, however, would be the first time the Lightning earnestly considered the historical aspect tied to all that they’re building toward.
Asked in the relaxed setting of the NHL All-Star Game about how aware the Lightning were about the historical pace they had flirted with entering the break, captain Steven Stamkos wouldn’t bite, and instead provided this insight into the team’s process.
“I said it when we ended that streak we were on,” he said, looking back at their incredible stretch through December that had 15 wins broken up by just one overtime loss. “Guys were angry that we lost. It wasn’t relief: ‘Oh, okay the streak is over. We don’t have to talk about it.’ It was, ‘let’s start a new one.’
“We love to win in this dressing room. A lot of people don’t see what goes on behind the scenes, but with the work ethic we put in, we expect to go out and win every night. It’s a contagious thing, and our team is pretty focused on that.”
When probed, most players, and most teams, say the right things — right along with Stamkos. With the Lightning, though, we’re witness to their considered, process-driven approach truly being actualized.
Incredibly, the Lightning have only improved their points pace since Stamkos retroactively echoed Johnson and Hedman six weeks ago in San Jose.
That in itself suggests that the details with which the Lightning focus on and routinely bring up aren’t to deflect, but instead reflect the refined manner in which the Lightning have learned, after their several postseason disappointments, to approach the game.
“Whatever happens with the results,” says Johnson, understanding that the Lightning can only control so much in the end, “that’s what happens.”
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