This story first appeared on Page 5 (The Five Hole) of the Nov. 19, 2019 edition of the St. Louis Game Time paper, sold outside of every Blues home game. For more information or to subscribe, email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Tampa Bay Lightning are flirting with danger. Last year, as you know, they went a ridiculous 62-16-4, good for 128 points. They could have forfeited their last 10 games of the season and still won the President’s Trophy comfortably. Calgary’s +62 goal differential last year was the second best in the league, a number that would’ve topped the previous year’s tables. Tampa went +103.
All this to say, last year’s Lightning were not just the best team in the league; they were dominant in a way this league hadn’t seen since those 2007-2009 Red Wings teams … and before that, those late-90s Red Wings teams. Fuck Detroit — except for Robby Fabbri (who, not for nothin’, has two goals and four assists in five games there.)
Tampa, of course, built a 3-0 lead in Game 1 of their first-round series against Columbus. Then Columbus swept. Keenan Thompson got to joke at the NHL Awards ceremony that Tampa had set all kinds of records during the regular season, then tied a record in the playoffs: fewest wins.
The man who built the Lightning, Steve Yzerman, jumped ship after the series (Fuck Detroit, except for Robby Fabbri) but most of that dominant team returned. There was no reason to think they’d be anything but dominant again, at least in the regular season. But Vegas always knows: I can’t find it now, but Tampa’s odds of making the playoffs were a (what seemed) ridiculously low 70 percent.
And now, they sit four points out of a playoff spot (although with three games in hand on the teams they’re chasing.) They’re only 5-4-1 in their last 10, and if things don’t turn around soon, GM Julian BriseBois will arrive at a perilous decision: To change this roster based on four games in April and 25 this year, or stick with what’s been the best team in the league over the past two regular seasons. I know which one I’d choose.
Five thoughts from a house that would’ve burned down a long time ago.
1. One bright spot for Tampa so far: Kevin Shattenkirk.
There was always something funky about the narrative of ol’ Shatt-Deuces just falling off the cliff last year. Did we really believe he went from reliably scoring a point every other game in 2016-17, the year he split between the Blues and Capitals, to requiring a damn buyout? He’s not young anymore — 30 now — and has probably lost a step or two. But he did still put up 28 points for New York last season, which isn’t a ton, obviously, but was only seven points fewer (in nine fewer games) than what Justin Faulk managed.
And sure enough, Shatty’s back near the top of the league among defensemen with 15 points in 17 games for Tampa. He’s also on a one-year, $1.7 million contract. Maybe it’s because he finally embraced his baldness and shaved his head.
2. Justin Faulk, man.
The turnover on Saturday cemented what was already clear: He’s been brutal.
Chief said it would take time to adjust to a new system, and fair enough (although Joel Edmundson, with two goals and three assists, is well on his way to his career average point total.) Thing is, Faulk’s on pace for 23 points: a definite decline from his output the last couple of seasons — but not an obscene one. Even Peak Justin Faulk is not close to being worth the trade and extension Doug Armstrong gave him, and it’s looking unlikely that we’ll ever see that Faulk.
3. Let’s hope like hell Seattle takes him in the expansion draft.
Seattle’s GM, Ron Francis, was a big part of the management team that drafted and developed Faulk, and you have to think Seattle would like a “top-pairing defenseman” in their first season. Please, please, Ron: Take this “top-pairing defenseman.”
4. Pat Maroon scored the goal, but don’t forget: Robert Thomas set it up. And Jordan Binnington made two spectacular blocker saves in OT to keep the game alive, like this one:
And right before that, as you’ll see in the non-chronological video above, Andrew Cogliano had fanned on a backhand with the whole net open. And oh god I’m giving myself a heart attack all over again thinking about. That game was absolutely miserable until it was over.
5. Don’t forget Maroon’s game-winner in Game 3 against Dallas, either. Dallas scored late to tie it, the Blues took the lead, then Dallas scored again to tie it. That’s when Big Rig gave a tiny little shove to Esa Lindell, who flopped like the flopper he is, picked up the puck, and snuck it between Ben Bishop’s arm and torso for the winner. Without that goal, the Game 7 goal might not happen.
If you enjoyed this story — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.