TORONTO – The 2016-17 Tampa Bay Lightning might just be the happiest collection of overachieving underachievers the sport has seen.
Wherever or whomever these guys are supposed to be, it’s not here or this: barely alive and furiously kicking heading into the final weekend of the NHL season.
Yes, this is a group that had grown accustomed to reaching the Eastern Conference final and seeing its logo splashed on TV screens as the so-called experts made their pre-season Cup predictions.
But this is also a group that got hit five months ago with the marquee injury of the hockey season—Stammer down! A roster that saw just 18 games from $5.8-million alternate captain Ryan Callahan.
Then, seeing themselves spiral downward, they traded away their most accomplished goaltender (Ben Bishop) and two of their most dependable forwards (Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula) and a solid defenceman (Mark Streit) at the deadline.
No. 1 defenceman Victor Hedman announced at the All-Star Game that every game in February, March and April would be treated like a playoff game. That, they’ve done. Hedman himself set up three goals Thursday to become the first 70-point D-man in franchise history.
“They’re a proud group,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. “They’ve been in the playoffs. They expect to be real good. It’s like anybody at this time of year that has a chance—you can smell it, sniff it, you want to be in.”
With desperation and discipline and excellent penalty-killing nullifying one of the NHL’s premier power plays, the Lightning dug in Thursday, delaying elimination with a gutsy performance, outshooting and outhustling the home side for a 4-1 win.
Vladislav Namestnikov slid to block a William Nylander wrist shot with his face, changed his bloody sweater, and continued skating.
“We had to win it, and I think we played like it,” said Brayden Point, who scored twice. Point clawed a roster spot on the merits of his training camp. Injuries and trades have hastened his ascension to No. 1 centre.
Seven Lightning starters had appeared in less than half this season’s games.
“People probably looked at our lineup card tonight and were trying to figure out who some of these guys were,” coach Jon Cooper said. “You know what? They’re hockey players, and they’ve got a goal.”
“Every time they pushed, our guys pushed back harder,” Cooper said. “You need secondary help, and these guys are there for us. It’s been a lot of fun coaching this team.”
Stralman and others used the word fun, too. Strange. Shouldn’t they be disappointed and exhausted and scouring GolfNow?
“We’ve been on this ride for basically two months now. All we can ask for is to be in this race, and we are,” Stralman said. “It might not work out in the end, but at least we’re giving it our all.”
Letting the taste of Thursday’s victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs—the latest in a concession of must-wins—linger for a minute, the Bolts cranked Lil Wayne’s “Right Above It” in the visitors’ room, punctuating Weezy’s celebratory beat with hoots and hollers.
Tampa has now won six and has points in seven of its past eight, yet still needs to win Friday in Montreal (probably without Johnson) and Sunday versus Buffalo, plus get help from the Leafs and the resurgent Islanders to steal the NHL’s final playoff spot.
The odds of climbing such a mountain? A scant 1.2 per cent, according to SportsClubStats.com.
But they’re saying there’s a chance.
“Cooper’s a coach that finds a way to get in the playoffs,” said call-up Cory Conacher, whom you may remember from such teams as 2015-16’s Bern SC.
“I don’t think he’s missed it in 17 years in his coaching career. It won’t be surprising if this teams wins three and squeaks in.”
Uh, yes, Cory, it will be surprising.
And if they fall short? Well, the injuries are a legit excus—
“I don’t think the injuries have anything to do with it,” Stralman states, cutting this reporter off. “Look at the lineup we have now and have won a bunch of games. A lot about winning in this league is just effort.
“If there’s a way to get three wins, starting tonight, and keep alive, it’ll be a pretty special story.”
The next chapter unfolds in just a few hours: Friday night at the Bell Centre.
“We’ve got to go win in Montreal, or else this one’s a wasted one. We have no choice,” Stralman said. “So… back on the horse.”