If you are a fan of an east coast hockey team, there is one road trip every year that sends chills down your spine: the dreaded California gauntlet. Between the LA Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, wins are scarce for the opposition in the Golden State.
These teams play strong, consistent hockey that will wear down even the best teams by the third game of the trip. For fans, games routinely run past 1 AM, which is a blessing for the second shifters of the world but benefits few others. All in all, a California tour often leads to a handful of losses and a cranky fan base.
This season, the Tampa Bay Lightning had other plans. Starting with a 5-1 win in San Jose on Nov. 8 and ending with a close 2-1 win over Anaheim on Nov. 12, the Lightning completed a three-game sweep of California. These three games against some of the top teams in the Western Conference felt like the Lightning’s coming out party. Sure, people knew they were great to start the season, but to succeed where so many others have failed should shed new light on the team.
Lightning History in Cali
The last time the Lightning swept through California was over 24 years ago in the 1993-94 season. Looking back, the 1993-94 season was near the start of the Lightning franchise and just the beginning for the Sharks and Ducks as well. The fact that it took so long for them to replicate this feat shows just how difficult such an endeavor is.
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) November 13, 2017
The Lightning have seen their fair share of special teams pass through California since 1994, but none of them were able to make it home unscathed. To think that some of the best teams in Lightning history were unable to complete this feat is stunning, making this trip all the more memorable.
Tampa Bay’s November Trudge
It may be a bit hyperbolic, but this sweep means more to the Lightning than just earning six points in November. Over the past few seasons, the Lightning would struggle through November and then collapse in December before mounting a comeback towards the end of January, in time for a playoff run. This worked out in the 2015-16 season but last season they couldn’t overcome the hole they dug themselves into.
Perhaps what makes this Lightning team so dangerous is that they are treating every game like their playoff lives hang in the balance. Over the last few years, the Lightning looked disconnected from the regular season after making deep playoff runs. The team seemed to be mentally preparing for April instead of fighting for wins in November. With the current level of competition in the NHL, there are no teams you can take lightly, no matter their record.
Last season the Lightning went a combined 1-5-0 against the Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, and Vancouver Canucks, three teams that were at the bottom of the NHL standings throughout the season. It would have taken just one victory against any of these bottom-dwelling teams to put them in the playoffs. This season, the Bolts have learned from their past errors by keeping up their game no matter the opponent.
Lots of Lightning Season Left
There’s still a lot left to the NHL season and the team at the top in June is almost always different than the one in November. Starting strong won’t mean anything if the Lightning flounder through December and then slowly regress leading up to the playoffs. After a summer of bad memories, the Lightning knows what can happen if they allow themselves to falter.
Banking points in October and November will be a boost long term. Every win matters, whether it be the last game of the season or a sweep through California. It took nearly 30 games for the Lightning to reach 30 points last season, and, though it may feel that way, wins are not worth double in March. This doesn’t mean that the Lightning can slow down now, but it will help ease the stress when the Lightning eventually feel the sharp hand of a losing streak.
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.