Sunday, May 29, 2016

Third One Done & Lost

My Tampa Bay Lightning saw their season come to a disappointing end Thursday night, in large part because they failed to capitalize on the fact that Pittsburgh was down to just one good defenseman in Games Six and Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Penguins are good, maybe the best team in the league given their depth of skill at forward, and they played extremely well and deserved to win. The Lightning did not just "hand it to them."

Nonetheless, Tampa Bay had a 3-2 series lead, after which Pittsburgh found themselves down to one strong defenseman because of Trevor Daley's broken ankle. With the Bolts' much vaunted speed and skill at forward (and with their often-quarterbacking defenseman Victor Hedman) this was a golden, gift-wrapped opportunity for them to exploit to close out the series... But instead, they performed obviously worse than in the two games prior and they got badly outplayed, dropping Games Six and Seven to blow the opportunity that was before them.

In other words, they proved they do not -- at least not yet -- have what it takes to be a champion, despite being built specifically to win the Cup and acting like that was their lone raison d'etre this season. That led me to post a Facebook rant which generated some thumbs-up and some vociferous thumbs-down.

My rant was harsh and critical and I will not hide from my words. I said that ending the season the way they did made it a failure, and that it would have been better to miss the playoffs than go out like they did.

What I was getting at, but may not have been clear about, is that these Bolts are so talented and determined that merely having a good season is beneath them. Having a good season but only winning half of the possible playoff rounds -- and getting horribly outplayed to end the third round, even though they had a clear lane to win it and were talented enough to win it -- means they did not maximize their potential.

It was too negative of me to say it would have been better to not make the playoffs. But as anyone who has ever been around me when I am playing a sport or doing something I care about can attest, I am fiercely competitive, and witheringly critical of my own performance, and would rather finish last than second. In my brain, last place means you just weren't good enough, while second place means you were good enough but didn't get it done. The former suggests no fault of your own, the latter does.

Call that a psychological defect or character flaw if you want. You are probably right to a certain extent.

But do not, as some have done, suggest that me ranting means I am not a true or worthy fan of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

I have watched and rooted for this team since Day One, which was in the autumn of 1992 when I was still matriculating at Auburn University. I remember being up in my college town, sitting at a table in Touchdowns Pub & Eatery, the night the Lightning won their inaugural game 7-3 over the Chicago Blackhawks.

I remember the date of the first game I attended in person: January 26, 1994. They outplayed and outchanced the stinkin' Florida Panthers, but John Vanbiesbrouck turned almost everything away and the game ended in a 1-1 tie (there were no shootouts back then, kiddos).

In 1998, sitting in Florida, I wrote a page and a half letter to the editor of the Edmonton Sun because one of its sportswriters had, in my opinion, slandered Tampa Bay hockey fans. I remember the writer's name (Robert Tychkowski) and his exact words that most set me off (he said we "wouldn't know snow unless it was shipped in from Colombia").

16 years ago, when the Lightning were floundering in their darkest days, I sat at a table in Port Angeles, Washington -- within sight of Victoria, British Columbia -- and defended the team's history and fan base while talking to a Canadian couple (a perfectly delightful couple, I hasten to add).

This little blog o' mine is a pure labor of love on which I make not a penny. But for years now I have spent many late night and early morning hours writing posts about the Lightning after Erika and the kids have gone to bed. Some of the posts have been glowing, some have been critical, and some have been "down the middle," but they have all been an honest and objective appraisal of what my eyes and brain tell me. I would not have carved such time out of my life and sacrificed so much sleep (sometimes at the expense of my liver) if I did not love this team.

Being a fan does not mean oblige a person to refrain from criticizing his team when criticism is warranted. In my view, withholding criticism simply makes you a yes man.

I complimented the Bolts after they lost in last year's Stanley Cup Finals, and was generally positive about them after they got swept in the first round the year before that. I did not flip out when they lost the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals in a Game Seven.

In each of those years, with their experience level taken into account, the Bolts made the most of their ability and maxed out their potential. This season was different, and was also the last year of this roster's window of opportunity before looming salary cap issues (and the specter of having to leave players exposed in a possible expansion draft) start to impose gut-wrenching personnel losses. This was their shot, and they may not have won the Cup regardless, but the way they went down in Games Six and Seven was beneath them -- and if I am going to opine, I am going to be true to my opinion.

I challenge anyone to read not just the above posts, but the one I wrote when Martin St. Louis retired, or my one about the Lightning's first playoff team (which lost in the first round after having a series lead, by the way), or my one acknowledging the tenth anniversary of their Stanley Cup, and tell me they weren't written by a true and worthy fan.

I do have good memories of this season. I do appreciate Victor Hedman taking up the slack by playing seemingly infinite minutes when Anton Stralman was out. I enjoyed the clutch scoring of Nikita Kucherov, the dazzling emergence of Jonathan Drouin, the elimination game shutouts by Ben Bishop, and the determined goaltending of Andrei Vasilevskiy after Bishop got injured.

But none of that changes the fact that the season was a failure by the team's own criteria. The team had one goal; and not only did it not attain that goal, it finished farther away from it than it did the year before. That is a fact, and a significant one. I am not going to refrain from saying it.

And I am not going to refrain from being a fan of this team. There is not a player on our roster I would swap for any player on another team's roster. There is a not a coach in the NHL who I would rather have behind our bench than Jon Cooper. There is not a GM in the world I would rather have in our front office than Steve Yzerman, and not an owner in the world I would rather have than Jeffrey Vinik.

Forever shall I say Go Bolts!

PS: In the interest of full disclosure, below is that Facebook rant I was talking about. I took the liberty of underlining the words that I think some people might not have paid attention to when they read it that night:

I could say well you had a good season Ligthtning, thanks for some good memories... But that would be a lie about the way I feel, and would be the kind of thing that is said by losers like the Dallas Stars... The Bolts had a 3-2 series lead, with the Penguins down to one good defenseman, and they failed to close out the series... Last year they made it to the finals and this year they returned the entire roster except for their worst player, yet they went backwards instead of forwards... Their backup goalie played his ass off and his teammates gave him no support, while Pittsburgh's backup played his ass off and his teammates did give him support... It would have been better to not make the playoffs than go out like this. This team failed. It is extremely unfair for me to say that from my couch, but it is true. Gotta call it like I see it.

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