The Tampa Bay Lightning are a good hockey club. They may even be a great one. Considering they posted 62 regular-season wins last season and returned the majority of their core group of players for the 2019-20 season. No doubt, being swept out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year by the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets tarnished their record-tying performance in earning the Presidents’ Trophy.

While regular-season wins determine seeding and home-ice advantage during the playoffs. Winning the Cup is the ultimate stamp of greatness for the players, coaches, and the organization. Despite recent trips to the Eastern Conference Final and one Stanley Cup Final appearance, the grand prize has alluded the Bolts. So has the recognition that every professional athlete craves.

Bolts’ Early Season Woes

The Lightning stumbled out of the gate at the opening of this season. Playing .500 hockey is not the character of this club loaded with so much talent. Were they still shaking off the cobwebs of the shell shocking defeat at the hands of Columbus? Had Jon Cooper lost the ear of his players and become destined to eviction as their head coach? What happened to the free-flowing style of play and the outstanding goalkeeping that scorched every other team in the league last year.

Jon Cooper Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper (James Guillory-USA TODAY)

Maybe that’s it. Did the Lightning burn themselves out during the torrid chase to tie the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings NHL record for most wins in a season? Maybe. Detroit failed to win the Stanley Cup after their remarkable regular-season performance that year. But, the 1996-97 season saw the Red Wings raise their first Stanley Cup in 42 years.

Coaches can only do so much to inspire their athletes. It’s up to the players themselves to succeed or fail. When an organization gives them all the tools to achieve greatness and they come up short, the athletes must perform some self-reflection and determine how they will respond. Cooper seemed to give his guys the space to do that early on.

Embarrassment is a great motivator and to a man, the Bolts were embarrassed by their first-round exit at the hands of the Blue Jackets. Still, they seemed disorganized. Great skills failing to mesh, not following the system. Even some instances of trying to do too much.

Lightning Turning Point

Cooper could have whipped his guys into a frenzy from the start of training camp. Driving them to the exceptional level of performance they displayed last season. Possibly repeating some of the accomplishments from their sensational season. However, he seems to have taken the long-range approach to finally accomplish the goal that has eluded the franchise since 2004.

Don’t think for a minute that the longest-tenured coach in the league is off his game. After Tampa’s leading scorer, Nikita Kucherov, misplayed a puck and cost his team a goal in the second period of their Dec. 17 matchup with the Ottawa Senators. Cooper benched Kucherov for the remainder of the game.

Kucherov could have reacted in many different ways. A prima donna might have sulked and pulled the whole team down. A hot-head could have degraded the authority of the coach and demanded a trade. To his credit, Kuch kept his mouth shut, put his head down, and went to work like a true professional.

Nikita Kucherov Tampa Bay Lightning
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The benching sent a clear message to the entire team. Every member is responsible for his own performance and everyone’s performance is important to the team’s success. It took a couple of games to sink in and suddenly the old magic was back.

Starting with a 6-1 blowout at home against the Florida Panthers two days before Christmas, Tampa ran off 10 straight wins. They moved from sixth place in the Atlantic Division into second. From out of the playoff picture to fourth in the conference standings.

Kucherov over the first 34 games of the season produced 12 goals and 25 assists, but a more telling statistic was the fact he was only a plus-3. In the last 16 contests, Kucherov has 10 goals, 11 assists and is a plus-14. Message received.

What must Tampa Bay do during the final 32 games of the regular season? Stay healthy is the primary goal. Just play good solid hockey, don’t worry about being great. Look for Cooper to keep his team in the top half of the conference until late March. Then expect him to crank up the energy as the Lightning make a serious run deep into the playoffs. Stanley Cup winners? Don’t bet against them.