A thing I would not know if I did not get copied on emails from a company that broadcasts NHL games: the Tampa Bay Lightning are the best team in hockey his year and stand a decent chance at breaking the Detroit Red Wings’ all-time record for wins in a season. That’s pretty neat.
A thing the Tampa Bay Lightning has to worry about as a result of how they’e doing: balancing that shot at history with the need to rest guys for what, especially in the NHL, is a grueling playoff format.
A person who knows about what that entails: Lou Piniella, who lives in Tampa but one time managed a Seattle Mariners team that had a shot at similar regular season glory. That 2001 M’s squad tied the single-season win record at 116 (the 1906 Cubs won that many in fewer games) but famously flamed out in the ALCS to the Yankees. Fairly or not, history has treated that team as a disappointment because, in sports, we have come to consider anything less than a championship as failure.
Piniella talked about that team and the balancing of the regular season win record vs. postseason strategy. He tells the Tampa Bay Times that, yep, it was a choice to try for 117:
“Remember, it was 9/11 that year, we had about a two-week break. So, we had to make a tough decision. Do we go for the record or rest our team entirely?” he said. “We had a big enough lead. We decided to take a shot at it while still being able to rest our pitching as well as we could. We had a Hall of Fame GM in Pat Gillick. We talked all the time about it. And we talked to the players. We had a clubhouse meeting. The players wanted to go for it.
“As it was, we lost to Texas in the final game of the season. We would have won 117 but came out at 116. I don’t regret it at all.”
He doesn’t regret it because, as he explained, the Mariners’ loss in the ALCS was not a function of regular season fatigue. It was a function of the Yankees having better pitching, exacerbated by the fact that the M’s inferior pitching staff was stretched to the limit in an unexpectedly tough ALDS series against the Indians. That’s true. I’ll add that my memory of that series involved the M’s, who had played in good luck all year, simply having their luck run out. They were down early often, didn’t hit with runners in scoring position and generally got outplayed. In other words: the Yankees, even if they were underdogs in the series, were a fantastic team and the defending champs, anything can happen in a short series, stuff, in fact, happened, and that was that.
Piniella says in the article that a regular season wins record is “a double-edged sword.” Based on why the M’s lost to the Yankees, I don’t think he really means that it’s a bad thing for one’s competitive prospects in the postseason. I think it has more to do with over 17 years of talk about the disappointment of 2001. Which is to say it’s a double-edged sword with respect to one’s legacy, not one’s team in the moment. At least that’s how I’m reading it.
So, go ahead and shoot for 63 wins, Lightning. Just make sure you have whoever your equivalent of Jamie Moyer is fully rested before the Stanley Cup Final begins.