John Romano: Redemption is still possible, but Lightning players are running out of time

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TAMPA, Fla. — Almost a year ago today, Jon Cooper strolled out through the loading dock at Nationwide Arena, declined an offer for a ride and headed into an unseasonably warm spring afternoon.

His players were long gone and had taken the buses with them, so Cooper walked unnoticed down a Columbus, Ohio, street toward a hotel. This was shortly after the Lightning’s morning skate and before what became the final game of their first-round playoff debacle against the Blue Jackets.

I’ve been thinking lately about that solitary stroll. Was Cooper contemplating the season-ending loss that was about to come, or the three losses that had put him on that path? Was he more troubled by where his team was, or where it should have been?

And if that short walk seemed torturous, what must this month feel like?

It’s true every NHL team is gathered today in the same state of limbo, awaiting a season that may never begin again. But it’s not an exaggeration to say no team is carrying a burden as large as the Lightning’s.

For them, it’s as if last season never ended. It began in the fall of 2018 with a history-busting regular season, followed by a soul-crushing postseason and then one long slog toward redemption. That is, until the coronavirus.

And now this meticulously constructed team sits quarantined on what was supposed to be the first weekend of the playoffs.

“If (the playoffs) were to be cancelled, that would be a huge disappointment,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “For what our team has done this year, and how we’ve set ourselves up, the additions that we’ve made, where we were at that point in the season with just a handful of games left and trying to gear up for a long playoff run and a successful playoff run, you just hope and you pray that there’s some scenario out there where we can somehow finish.”

It’s more than just the past year, of course. Tampa Bay has been dancing around Lord Stanley’s Cup for seven years now. It’s difficult to imagine a team that has been quite this dominant in the regular season without winning the last game of the playoffs.

In his seven full seasons as coach, Cooper has won 343 regular-season games. No other coach is really close. Among coaches who have been behind the bench for at least 500 career games — Cooper is at 578 — Cooper’s points percentage of .645 is second only to Scotty Bowman in NHL history.

Ponder that, then imagine the pain of sitting idly by while another postseason is potentially slipping away.

Particularly with a team that may have been even better than last season’s. No, the win total doesn’t reflect that. Neither do many of the stats. But the Lightning understood their shortcomings from last spring and they spent the better part of the past six months correcting them.

They weren’t quite as flashy, and they definitely weren’t as explosive. But Tampa Bay had learned to play with more discipline. And they had gotten bigger and deeper in the past month with trades for forwards Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, along with the signing of defenseman Zach Bogosian.

“After what happened last year, we had something to prove this year,” forward Anthony Cirelli said. “Obviously, we had to go through another regular season, and we had to get better with our game. I thought that’s what we were doing down the stretch.”

The NHL has been holding out hope that a postseason can still be salvaged this summer and seems willing to play in empty arenas if that’s what it takes. Like Major League Baseball, there is also talk of playing in neutral sites and having game times staggered throughout the day.

To Lightning players, those are just details. Whether they finish the regular season or go right into a postseason won’t matter, either.

It’s been 23 months since this franchise won a playoff game. On May 19, 2018, Tampa Bay was one victory away from clinching the Eastern Conference title and advancing to the Stanley Cup final.

Since then, the Lightning have gone 105-37-10 in the regular season and 0-6 in the postseason.

Redemption is out there.

It’s just a question of whether the Lightning will have a chance to get it.


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