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And down the stretch they come...!

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Thoughts on the Lightning as the NHL regular season wanes

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last week the Tampa Bay Lightning lost three straight at Amalie Arena. The marquee, must-win game to local columnist Martin Fennelly was against the lowly Arizona Coyotes (whom the Bolts had already lost to a few months earlier). In Fennelly’s mind, if Tampa Bay were to lose the game, it would hammer home how this is one of the most disappointing seasons for a professional sports team in Tampa Bay.

Three losses in a row and… Tampa Bay is still in the playoff race. Three losses in a row last week and now three wins in a row, starting with back-to-back games in venues some 700 miles apart.

And then there’s Monday night’s nationally broadcast thriller from the Amalie. Tampa Bay scored four unanswered goals to top the Central Division-leading Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime. One of the most disappointing seasons in Tampa Bay sports history? As if!

82 sporting events over a six month period is an arduous task. The NHL started a tad late with thanks to the World Cup of Hockey, and scheduling difficulties were compounded by the bye-week for all 30 clubs, so it resulted in a more arduous schedule with oh-so-many back-to-back games and three-in-four-night tasks. The arduousness of the season is hindered by bumps, bruises and injuries for everyone in the league, let alone the Lightning who have been struck time and time again with the loss of key players to injury.

And they still stand, with seven games left in the 2016-17 regular season, just three behind the Boston Bruins for the #8 seed in the Eastern Conference, and four points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the #6 seed.

No Steven Stamkos, no Tyler Johnson, a lineup that’s been riddled with temporary and longer-range ouches. A team that’s been disorganized and in need of an attitude adjustment mid-season… and they’re still here. They’re still alive in the hunt for the playoffs.

You don’t call one of these seasons a disappointment, or one of the biggest ever. Hell, if this season is such a negative in the accomplishment field, why was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2016 season not even discussed in the fabled disappointment column? The Bucs haven’t made the playoffs since 2007, when the team went 9-7 ... which was the record of the club in 2016, which was the best record by the Bucs since 2010 (10-6)… when the club failed to make the NFL post season.

Whether the Tampa Bay Lightning end up in the playoffs or not, Monday night’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks is evidence of something grander: It’s why you love this team. You know they’re capable and honed. The beloved Tampacuse system has produced more than a few game-winning goals at crucial times for the Bolts over the past four years. Monday night it was Yanni Gourde who sealed the deal. He’s been a standard with the Syracuse Crunch as he’s honed his game. The pratfalls, bad luck, and business of the sport have all earned him the opportunity to graduate to the NHL level and show his stuff.

If the Lightning survive the last seven games of the season (and by the way, there are two more pairs of back-to-back games in the schedule) and make the playoffs, it will be a major accomplishment. It’s already a major accomplishment that a team that underachieved for so long this season is still standing and still contending for a post-season slot. It’s an accomplishment that we’ve been reminded, over and over again down the stretch, that there’s a path forward in Tampa Bay as the development pipeline produces NHL talent for the club.

Come what may, the close to the season will keep our interest piqued. Hell, they already have been. Don’t expect that to stop.