Nothing comes easy. Not when you’re trying to win a Stanley Cup.
The Lightning is finding that out.
For nearly four months, things have gone about as smoothly as they could for the Lightning.
Best record in hockey. Top scorers in the league. Best goalie in the business. Scoring goals at a crazy clip. Beating teams any which way you want.
We’re barely more than halfway through the season and the Lightning has all but locked down a playoff spot.
If general manager Steve Yzerman and coach Jon Cooper had written up an outline for the season before it began, they probably wouldn’t have included as much success as this season has had so far.
What could go wrong?
Uh, don’t ask.
After all the things that have gone right for four months, it took only an instant for everyone in Tampa Bay to be reminded that nothing comes easy.
The biggest hold-your-breath moment of the season came Thursday night when All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman was helped off the ice with what was called a lower-body injury.’ But every Lightning fan immediately starting praying to the hockey gods that it wasn’t what they feared: a torn knee that would wipe out Hedman’s season.
It looked bad. It looked way worse than when Steven Stamkos tore his knee in November 2016 and missed the rest of the season. In a flash, the Lightning’s Stanley Cup odds seemed to take a serious hit.
Other than goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, no player means more to the Lightning than Hedman. Other that Vasilevskiy, no loss would hurt the Lightning more than losing Hedman for an extended period.
Though not preferable, the Lightning could lose leading scorer Nikita Kucherov for the rest of the season and not feel it as much as losing Hedman. It could lose Stamkos for the rest of the season and not have that hurt as much as losing Hedman. That’s how much the big defenseman means to the Lightning.
You can breathe again, Tampa Bay.
The Lightning dodged major trouble when it was revealed Friday that Hedman’s injury is not as bad as feared. He is expected to miss only weeks as opposed to months. If all goes as expected, Hedman will be back well before the playoffs, and that was about the best news Tampa Bay could have reasonably hoped for.
Yet it was a cold reminder of how quickly things can change in hockey, and let’s face it, the Lightning doesn’t need any more reminders. It has been down this bumpy road before. Bad luck and untimely injuries (as if there are ever timely ones) have crushed more than one potential Stanley Cup run.
In 2014, the Lightning seemed poised for a deep playoff run when star goalie Ben Bishop went down with an injury right before the playoffs. The Lightning was swept in four games in the first round.
The next season, Bishop injured his groin during the Stanley Cup final and wasn’t the same goalie he had been all season long. The Lightning lost to Chicago in six games.
Then the season after that, Stamkos missed all but one postseason game of Tampa Bay’s run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final because of a blood clot. The Lightning lost that Game 7 to eventual Cup champion Pittsburgh.
And this season all was going great until Hedman was injured on what was fairly routine check along the boards. As Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said, "That’s hockey.’’
That could apply to everything about what happened, from the play itself to losing a star player in the snap of a finger.
The Lightning is off for a few days now, and the break could not have come at a better time.
Vasilevskiy is fighting it a bit right now, having allowed 15 goals in his past three starts. Stamkos hasn’t had a goal in six games. After a hot start, Vladislav Namestnikov has cooled and has no goals in 10 games.
And overall, the Lightning has looked just okay in the past couple of weeks, with a 4-3-1 record in its past eight games. It’s nothing to be overly concerned about. There was no way Tampa Bay was going to keep up its torrid pace. And if 4-3-1 is considered a slump, the Lightning can feel pretty good about itself.
But it will feel a lot better if the playoffs would just get here already.
The Lightning still has three more months to navigate. It won’t be easy. Why?