For the majority of the course of the Lightning’s 2010-2011 regular season, a return to the playoffs for Lord Stanley’s Cup wavered between a strong possibility and near certainty.  The Lightning started strong out of the gate with a 7-3 record through the end of October and, proceeded to win more games than they lost in nearly every month on their schedule (November and March excluded).  The Lightning’s brief flirtation with Evgeni Nabokov in December before GM Steve Yzerman ultimately pulled the trigger on a trade for Dwayne Roloson was as clear a signal as the acquisition of Eric Brewer ahead of the trade deadline of an internal escalation of the expectations for this year’s club.

Of course, the Lightning closed out their regular season on quite the high note last night as they squelched the Carolina Hurricanes’ playoff aspirations with a convincing 6-2 victory that gave the Lightning 103 points, it’s second-highest regular season point total in franchise history and meant the team will enter post-season play against the Penguins having won 7 of their last 8 games.

It would take a remarkably pessimistic mindset to see this season as anything short of a remarkable turnaround.  A cursory glance at the standings shows the Lightning earned the 5th seed, but, even as the final games on the NHL schedule are being played, the team ultimately finished only 4 points shy of winning the Southeast Division and Eastern Conference titles.  This team was THAT close, folks.  They deserve a packed house and a hearty slow clap next week, regardless of how the series shapes up after the first two games.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs, of course, is a season within a season.  The excitement and buzz surrounding the team may soon enough turn to disappointment and dejection.  A first-round exit, especially against a club, no matter its strengths, that will be missing at least one (and probably both) of its best players, would undoubtedly sting and probably lead some of the more fickle among the Lightning faithful to fitful bouts of second-guessing and scapegoating.

There’s a bigger narrative, though, that that bears repeating, one in which the franchise can already be determined a winner, no matter what happens in the course of the playoff run.  By taking a deep breath and revisiting the course of events that transpired a year ago at the conclusion of the 2009-2010 season and comparing the situation then with where the organization stands today, you can truly appreciate this year’s edition of the Tampa Bay Lightning for being far, far ahead of where most were expecting this team, led by a rookie coach hired by a rookie (NHL) GM hired by a rookie owner, to be.  Consider:

  • A year ago tomorrow, the Lightning were playing out the string for the third-straight season.  After publicly feuding with other during the course of the regular season, both coach Rick Tocchet and GM Brian Lawton seemed likely to be dismissed.
  • New owner Jeff Vinik cleaned house, unceremoniously firing Tocchet and Lawton several days later.  This meant the club would have to hire it’s fourth coach and third GM in three years.
  • Shortly after learning of the dismissal of Tocchet and Lawton and with the hiring of Yzerman still more than a month away, Martin St. Louis sounded off on his frustration with losing and seemed to indicate a willingness to be traded if he didn’t like the direction the organization went.

In short, the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise seemed to be a broken shadow of its former self.  Outside of the emergence of Steven Stamkos, Steve Downie and Mike Lundin, another superbly productive season from Martin St. Louis, a solid if unremarkable rookie campaign from Victor Hedman and better-than-expected season from Antero Niitymakki, there was little else to be encouraged by as a Lightning fan in mid-April 2010.

The rest, as they say, is history.  In short order, Vinik would follow through on his pledge to restore the franchise’s credibility and stability, wooing Steve Yzerman in late May who, in turn, managed to bring Guy Boucher into the fold by late June.  After a rash of trades and signings starting before July 1 and lasting well into the fall, Yzerman had crafted a roster that, on Opening Night, was deeper and more talented than any the organization had iced since 2005-2006.

As the season wore on, I started to think back to the 2002-2003 Lightning squad, which managed 93 points in the regular season and earned the 3rd seed heading into the playoffs.  They initially faced and defeated Jaromir Jagr and the Washington Capitals in the first round before succumbing to the Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils.  Some of the circumstances surrounding the progress of that club and this year’s team (preceding years of futility, a mixture of older vets and young talent, an ‘innovative’ coach) struck me as similar, not exact.  They aren’t I thought then that if the goaltending could be shored up and Yzerman could make a move to at least improve their defensive depth, the Lightning  would have as good a shot as any come time for the big dance.  The additions of Roloson and Brewer have nothing to deter that sentiment.

Again, we’ll see how things shake out, but whatever happens, chin up.  Roster adjustments will begin anew in the summer as the long-term plan for this franchise continues to be implemented.  The process has really just begun.  In that context, no matter what happens in the next few weeks, we’ve already “won”.

By the way, if you happen to see Scott Cullen hanging in effigy for outside the Forum next week for this dastardly deed, it wasn’t me.  Scout’s honor.

Written by Michael Gallimore

Michael was born, raised and still lives in the Tampa area. His coverage of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL and hockey in general appears at Bolt Statistics (which he founded) and Bolt Prospects (as a staff writer). His analysis and opinions have also been featured at Raw Charge and as part of a “Blogger Roundtable” on the Lightning’s official site.

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