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Lightning opportunity for playoff redemption on hold during season pause

Eye Stanley Cup run after being swept in first round in 2019

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

The Tampa Bay Lightning started thinking about this week 11 1/2 months ago.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs would have started Wednesday. The Lightning were on their way to earning a chance to compete, the opportunity to make amends for what happened last season, when they were shockingly, and to them embarrassingly, swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round after tying the NHL record for wins in a regular season with 62.

Now, like the rest of the League, they wait at home for the green light to start again.

"It would be so nice to see this team on the ice in the playoffs," Lightning forward Yanni Gourde said in a phone interview last week. "I'm still confident. I'm still hoping that we're going to see this team in the playoffs. But right now, it's hard to see through and see what's going to happen."

The NHL season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. There is no timetable for when, or if, the season might resume.

Video: NHL players reach out to fans during Pause

Tampa Bay (43-21-6) is second in the Atlantic Division, eight points behind the Boston Bruins. Gourde said he felt the Lightning's game was rounding into playoff form, something that in hindsight never happened last season and hurt them in the end.

They gave away a 3-0 lead in Game 1 against the Blue Jackets and lost 4-3. They unraveled in Game 2 and lost 5-1, losing Hart Trophy-winning forward Nikita Kucherov to a one-game suspension for boarding in the process.

Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Victor Hedman was injured and couldn't play in Games 3 and 4. The Lightning lost two straight at Columbus, 3-1 and 7-3, and just like that, 10 days after tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most regular-season victories, they were eliminated from the playoffs April 16.

"Last year, we kept doing the same thing over and over and it worked in the regular season, but we didn't have to adjust, we didn't have to find ways to win games, it just worked out," Gourde said. "This year, we have had to dig deep."

That's why the Lightning are so eager to get a chance to play postseason hockey at some point this year. They want to see if the adversity they went through early in the season really will pay off, if they truly are better for it, as they believe they are.

Video: Shorthanded goals lead Lightning past Bruins

The Lightning were 17-13-4 after losing 3-1 at the Washington Capitals on Dec. 21. They were sixth in the Atlantic Division and tied for 22nd in the NHL.

"Maybe in the back of our heads we were still thinking about last year," Hedman said. "We wanted to get back to the playoffs right away. We couldn't believe we were going to play 82 more games before we could, and if you think like that in this league, it's not going to go your way. It's a long season. I didn't think we were playing that bad in the beginning, we just didn't get the results that maybe we deserved."

The Lightning finally got going two days before Christmas, when they defeated the Florida Panthers 6-1 to start a 10-game winning streak and a 23-2-1 stretch through Feb. 17.

Hedman, though, said the seeds for that hot streak were planted more than six weeks earlier, when the Lightning were in Stockholm for the 2019 NHL Global Series games against the Buffalo Sabres at Ericsson Globe. He said that's where they finally moved on from last season's disappointing finish.

Video: MTL@TBL: Hedman nets PPG off defender's stick

It didn't hurt that they won the two games, 3-2 on Nov. 8 and 5-3 on Nov. 9.;

"We got some time to bond as a group and we got some time to really just focus on hockey," Hedman said. "We had some good practices in Stockholm. We had a tough trip. We were in New York for a week and then Stockholm for a week, so that was a lot for us, but that was a big turning point for our team. That really helped us move along."

The Lightning eventually tightened up defensively, without sacrificing on offense They scored 3.69 goals per game and allowed 1.88 in their 23-2-1 run from Dec. 23-Feb. 17.

A four-game losing streak from Feb. 20-27 was humbling, but the Lightning, even without center Steven Stamkos -- out following core muscle surgery March 2 -- went 3-2-1, scoring 3.17 goals and allowing 2.33 per game, in their last six games before the season was paused.

Defenseman Zach Bogosian and forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, who were acquired in advance of the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline, were starting to fit in. The Lightning felt they were close to being ready for the playoffs.

"We've been able to keep opponents to low scores, protect leads, and shut down teams once we've gotten the lead," general manager Julien BriseBois said at the NHL GM meetings in early March. "Those are areas where we've been significantly better this year than we were last year."

They were looking forward to putting it to the test when it matters most. They were supposed to get that chance this week, the start of the playoffs, the chance at redemption.

Instead, the Lightning wait and hope for better days ahead that they believe could lead to a championship if given the opportunity.

"We were happy where we were until this break came and this terrible virus struck the world," Hedman said. "We have all the tools to be successful, to have that season. We want to be the ones that raise the Cup over our heads. I love the team. We're just hoping we can get back soon and finish off the season, but at this time right now it feels very far away."

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