In a game that many hockey observers pointed to as a possible preview of the Stanley Cup final, it was close for a while…and then it wasn’t. The Tampa Bay Lightning not only defeated the injury-plagued Winnipeg Jets 5-2, they sucked the Jets into playing out of their comfort zone, executing plays with precision, taking advantage of mistakes and getting timely production from their ‘it’s not even fair’ power play.
A statement game? Debatable, since the Jets were without defensemen Josh Morrissey, Dustin Byfuglien and Joe Morrow and center Adam Lowry. Then they lost goalie Connor Hellebuyck after he took a Nikita Kucherov shot in the mask just before the Lightning put the game away by making it 3-1. But as the Bolts enter their final 15 games of the season, it was a crucial victory.
Let’s put that into perspective. When a team is 17 points ahead of its nearest competitor in the overall standings and on the verge of clinching a playoff spot with a month still to play in the season (their magic number over the Montreal Canadiens or Columbus Blue Jackets is four), crucial is a relative term.
But not only did the win provide the Lightning with more confidence by beating a top Western Conference team, it also kept their slim hopes of tying or beating a couple of impressive records alive.
And really, history is all the Lightning have to chase at the moment. Ask any team that was dominant in the regular season and then faltered in the playoffs why it happened and almost all of them will tell you that it had nothing to play for in the final month of the season and when the time came to reset for the playoffs, something was missing.
That’s precisely why it’s so important for the Lightning to keep winning and keep chasing history, as difficult as it will be to do so.
With the victory, the Lightning woke up Wednesday morning with 106 points. That puts them on pace for 130, which would be two fewer than the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, a team that is generally regarded as the greatest of all-time. That means that in order to tie the Canadiens, the Lightning would be required to gather 26 of a possible 30 points in their final 15 games. It seems impossible until you consider that’s exactly what the Lightning have done in their most recent 15 games (12-1-2).
And let’s get one thing straight here: even if the Lightning were to tie or even usurp the Canadiens’ points record, they would be no historical match for that team. The Canadiens established their record by playing two fewer games without the benefit of overtime or shootouts. They tied 12 games that year. Even if they had split those two games and went on to win only half of their ties in extra time, they would have finished that season with 140 points. With their level of talent, they likely would have done even better.
Another record that is perhaps more within reach for the Lightning is the 62 wins recorded by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. In order to tie that mark, the Lightning would require 11 wins in their final 15 games. With nine of their final 15 games on the road, including a four-game road swing through the Atlantic Division to finish the season, that also might be a tall order.
One of the reasons why the Lightning have been so dominant this season is they’re smarting from 2017-18 when they were first overall in the NHL and 10 points ahead of the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs for top spot in the Atlantic Division, then frittered it away, being passed by both the Jets and Nashville Predators in the league standings and needing a late-season surge to hold off the Bruins for the Atlantic Division.
The Lightning have stressed that this season is as much about process and efficiency as it is about wins. They want to feel good about their victories this season and not simply leave the rink knowing they picked up a victory in a game they should have lost only because their skill took over. Earlier this season when the Lightning lost 5-2 in Tampa Bay for their first regulation loss in 17 games, coach Jon Cooper talked to his team and tried to accentuate the positives, but he could tell the players were having none of it.
“Guys were genuinely pissed off that we lost,” Steven Stamkos said. “It wasn’t like, ‘OK, take a breath, the pressure’s off.’ We were pissed and we came out and won the next couple.”
If the Lightning come to the realization soon that both of those records are out of reach, perhaps they’ll rest some of their stars down the stretch. But as long as they have a chance, we’re all for them keeping their foot directly on the gas pedal.
When your only opponent is history, you have to be at your best.