Heading into the 2019-20 NHL regular season, the feeling surrounding Tampa Bay Lightning fans wasn’t excitement, but worry and frustration. Since the 2015 Playoffs, when the Lightning made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, fans have suffered heartbreak after heartbreak, watching a team with dynastic potential come up one game or one point short year after year.
Then you had the great meltdown of 2019, which wiped out one of the best regular seasons not just in NHL history, but across all of Tampa Bay sports.
After that Round 1 sweep, the Lightning went from feared franchise to a punchline. You knew every time they were on national television, the meltdown would be a focal point of the conversation. That every streak of good play would be countered with a dismissive, “Yeah, but…”
So, no matter if you are a casual or hardcore fan of the Lightning, you knew the 2019-20 season was going to be a long one, as it would take until June to know if the season would be a real success or not.
Lightning Built Playoff Foundation in 2019-20
As the 2019-20 season wore on, there were signs of hope. Despite a slow start, the Lightning started playing like a complete team, unlike their counterparts from the season before who relied heavily on raw skill to win.
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They were shutting down opponents defensively, finding secondary scoring from their third and even fourth lines, and were playing a physical game that looked playoff-ready. Throughout January and early February, they dominated play, rattling off separate 10-game and franchise-record 11-game winning streaks en route to placing themselves firmly in the playoff race.
Even as the Lightning’s play slipped in late-February due to a slew of injuries to key players, they still looked like a contender. In some ways, these injuries provided that fabled adversity which was avoided last season, and it appeared to be one of the final pieces for building a winning foundation.
Sure they weren’t perfect, but everything was there for the Lightning to be healthy in time for the playoffs. With a complete roster, they had the depth and ability to avenge their 2019 meltdown.
Lightning Hype Derailed By COVID-19, Tom Brady
This was, of course, before the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the entire sports world. In a matter of hours, playoff hockey went from the forefront of everyone’s mind to a distant thought that was replaced by so much else.
See, if you don’t live in the greater Tampa Bay area, it may be difficult to understand just how has much happened since the Bolts’ season was put on hold. First, after football legend Tom Brady signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April, all sports discussions became focused on the Bucs, leaving little air in the room to talk about the Lightning and their potential return.
As the spring and summer wore on, it became harder and harder to stay focused on hockey. Even as it appeared that there would be a possibility for a restart, this lacked any real resonance in the area as Brady filled the headlines.
Then, as plans for playoff hockey solidified, Florida became an epicenter of the pandemic. To put it simply, sports have been pushed out of many minds, as more serious matters regarding a pandemic take hold of the state.
Lightning May Be in a No-Win Scenario
It’s not that Lightning fans aren’t looking forward to their return in August, it’s just that there’s going to be a lot of mixed emotions as hockey restarts. The Bolts have to win the Stanley Cup (something that is remarkably difficult) or their entire season will be considered another bust.
However, even if they do win it all, it will forever be known as the ‘COVID-Cup’ by detractors both inside and outside the fanbase. The argument won’t be about how the Lightning overcame their demons, but how the victory should go down in the history books with an asterisk.
On top of everything else, a deep playoff run will last until late September, putting the Lightning up against Brady and the Buccaneers. Needless to say, the Bolts stand no chance holding mind share around Tampa, as the city is about football, first and foremost.
All of this leads me to have a weirdly indifferent feeling about the Lightning’s 2020 NHL Playoffs. If they flop, then the narrative about their postseason inability will continue. If they win it all, they will be under constant ridicule for a situation outside of their control and hidden behind the shadow that is Brady.
And no matter what happens on the ice, it will be impossible not to think about a worst-case scenario for the NHL should the bubble system fail in Toronto and Edmonton. So, while it will be nice to watch the Lightning again in a few weeks, it’s going to be difficult to truly enjoy the playoff run.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.