“How did it come to this?” Jon Cooper asked, as he removed his chaps and put on a robe, a little alarmed at the amount of scented massage oils on his hands and elsewhere. He looked out the window of his yacht, and no it wasn’t him wondering how he ended up with this curious yet staid housewife of Tampa, who not only wouldn’t leash him but didn’t even know what it was, but why he wasn’t working at the moment.
And that’s how most of Tampa will spend the next month or two, because God knows there’s nothing else to do there. How did the best team of the recent era go poof! before we even had time to get drunk? Move over, Leftovers, HBO is going to have a new show about a mysterious happening that no one can explain. Except the fallout will still be everyone living in Tampa or St. Pete, wondering how they got there and yet never figuring out a way to leave. Vibrant, this show will not be.
Let’s dispel the myths that will hound the Lightning through all of next year. That somehow dominating the league left them unprepared for games that meant anything. Hmmm…seems to me when you’re chasing a points and wins record, every game means something. You’re not just going through the motions. And seeing as how the last two relevant Hawks teams and the two Penguin champions basically took March off, this doesn’t hold much water (or in Cooper’s case, water-based lube). You’re professionals, almost everyone on that team was in last year’s conference final and a few before that, so to act as if they were unprepared for the playoffs is a stretch at best, an absolute falsehood at worst. It’s a foothold for the stupid.
They aren’t tough enough, that’s what every breathing-too-hard-after-three-stairs media person in Canada and in hockey will say. They lack grit. They lack heart. And Columbus doesn’t because Brandon Dubinsky yells a lot or something. Again, this is a Lightning team that’s been within no more than five wins of a Cup three times in the last five years. It must know something about advancing in the spring. Perhaps it forgot, as most residents of the area tend to with a lot of things. Or wish they could. Perhaps it’s contagious.
No, eventually, between planning his next swingers’ club outings to Tampa’s one cocktail lounge, Cooper will come to realize he just got out-coached, and his goalie barfed up a poltergeist or two. The Bolts still wanted to weave their pretty passing patterns through an amped-up and moved-up trap of Columbus. They wanted to Quenneville, when Quenneville hockey was shown to not work anymore three years ago. And it was especially silly with a battered and then absent Victor Hedman, and Mikhail Sergachev’s legs more and more covered by his own urine. Out and up was the order of the day, which is also what they tell you to be aware of when walking into Cooper’s office.
Even that doesn’t explain it all, not as much as Vasilevskiy’s .855 SV% for the series does. Whatever plan you have or the opponent has doesn’t matter much when your goalie looks like Gumby in the freezer. Pair that with Game 7 last year against the Caps, and suddenly there’s a lot of baggage in the young man’s head. Baggage he can’t do much about until next spring. Makes for a fun follow-up season, with no questions at every stop or anything.
In the end, it might be nothing more than the perfect storm of a bad week, a goalie slump, an injury or two, and every opponent getting hot. The thing with hockey is that it defies explanation a lot of the time, and trying to stab the smoke of reason it has is what lands organizations in bigger trouble than it already was.
The questions now of course will be do the Lightning panic and change things in search of the more and more nebulous “grit and heart and fire and passion and FAARRRRRTTTT?” Are players who are considered to have snuffed it on the big stage this past week all contenders to be moved along? Could there be something wrong with a group that put up the best regular season in recent memory? That’s a pretty tidy list, consisting only of Stamkos, Kucherov, Palat, Vasilevskiy, Sergachev, Point, Johnson, and Hedman. Should be easy to move all of them along, no?
Luckily the GM who was hailed a genius for trying to reconstruct the 2014 Rangers blue line isn’t around anymore, so he can’t be hurled overboard. Then again, it was his replacement who actively sought Jan Rutta, so there must be some kind of gas leak in the GM office at Amalie Arena that causes one to see a blue line as a place for surrealism. Seriously, Braydon Coburn, Rutta, and Ryan Callahan played playoff games in 2019. When you have to absolutely play at high speed, the first or second call probably shouldn’t go out to Dan Girardi or Ryan McDonagh. Maybe it’s not all that mysterious?
You know how this goes. Tampa could easily hold everything together, win next year at a canter, and then this flop will be cited as their rallying cry and inspiration among the champagne and confetti. It can be the chip on the shoulder everyone seems convinced you have to have to succeed in April and May. Hockey is nothing if not filled with people angry at figments, or their struggle to cope in the every day world.
But that will be just another Cup win. What the Lighting have done here is truly unique. Never happened before, in fact. A Cup win next spring just adds you to the list. Here you stand alone. It’s all yours. Everyone will remember this one. Which is just about the only thing memorable to happen to Tampa, ever. They say the Bucs won a Super Bowl once, after they got to play a team too stupid to change its signals to avoid detection from their old coach who just happened to be on the other sideline. All that got us were Hooters ads and some of the most awkward exchanges on Sportscenter ever seen with confused and impatient college kids. And that’s saying something. Still, I don’t believe it actually happened. I know it didn’t matter if it did.
No, this should go on all the signs. Next to Magic Mike and the reasons for not going to Rays games which consist only of, “Well, it’s over there.” (which would have made Tampa the perfect landing spot for the White Sox, come to think of it)
“Welcome to Tampa, the site of the only Presidents’ Trophy Winner to belch themselves inside-out in less than a week.” Now that’s something. They’ll come from miles to see that…or to avoid whichever machete-wielding neighbor escaped his basement dungeon that day in some podunk Florida town. Either or.
Goodnight, Tampa Bay Lightning. You are history. No, literally, you are. An accomplishment, a touchstone, a benchmark. No one else can say that this spring. Just make you take extra care to knock on Cooper’s door this summer. He’s got a lot to work out.