The Tampa Bay Lightning had their own March madness this year. With a March mantra to boot: Just win, baby.

And no surprise — the Lightning did. A lot.

Tampa Bay went 9-1-1 last month, saving their best run of the season (so far) for the stretch drive toward playoffs. It’s not the first time the Lightning have hung back, only to flip the proverbial switch right when points and positioning are paramount.

It’s a sound strategy when successful — even if Tampa Bay isn’t exactly aiming to be so dramatic.

“We’re obviously not trying to wait that long [to get going],” defenseman Victor Hedman said with a laugh. “But yeah, that’s just how things have played out. But we’re always confident in ourselves and we’re confident in the core group that we are going to be able to sustain a high level of play from here for a deep playoff run.”

Tampa Bay certainly knows what it takes to go on one. The Lightning were back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in 2020 and 2021, and reached the Final again in 2022. The accumulation of acclaim made their first-round exit against Toronto in 2023 all the more disappointing — but even additional offseason rest didn’t help the Lightning transition to a new year.

In fact, Tampa Bay downright struggled to start this season. Without goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy — who was sidelined by offseason hip surgery until late November — the Lightning struggled to barely get above .500 and were 18-15-5 on Dec. 31. The Lightning had at that point also lost top-pairing defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to an upper-body injury and were looking for a clear direction.

That was uncharted territory for Tampa Bay after being rapidly locked in to its postseason fate a season ago.

“I think last year at Christmas we knew we were playing the Leafs [in the first round],” Jon Cooper said last week. “This year at Christmas, we knew we weren’t playing the Leafs. It’s been one of those years. I don’t know what our point total was [at this point] last year. But we’re not too far off. It’s just we got to this point in a different way.”

Cooper was right: Tampa Bay had 96 points on April 3, 2023; the Lightning were at 91 points on April 3, 2024, and holding the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card spot.

So, what changed for Tampa Bay to take it from writhing to thriving? Because finding a way to sneak up on — and slip past — the competition is a tall order even for recent two-time champions. But the Lightning are doing it and hitting their stride after weathering a few storms.

And maybe those past achievements are also pushing Tampa Bay — on and off the ice — to embrace the ride.

“These guys have really in the month of March put them in a spot that you maybe on March 1 we weren’t thinking was going to be like this,” Cooper said. “I’m proud of the guys for what they’ve done. Because you know, every year is different.”

DOWNTIME DURING THE SEASON isn’t usually a bad thing.

Unless you’re the Lightning.

Tampa Bay had just cruised through January at 8-1-0 to arrive at its 10-day layoff between the bye week and All-Star activities. When the Lightning resumed play, though, it was under increasingly choppy seas.

“For whatever reason, our team hasn’t been good coming out of [All-Star] breaks in recent years, and we were true to that this year,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We went into the break on a good tear. Then we had a couple of games where things really kind of went sideways in terms of what our identity is. We got away from it.”

The first wave hit when Sergachev — back in the lineup on Feb. 7 after a 17-game absence — suffered multiple tibia fractures that same night. He immediately had surgery, and Cooper said Tampa would have to go “deep” in the playoffs to see Sergachev rejoin the team.

The Lightning went downhill from there, finishing February 5-6-1 while barely clinging to a playoff spot.

Their slump presented a significant challenge. Would they let that crack turn into a crevice, swallowing the season whole? Or could they start patching what holes were in front of them?

Tampa Bay chose the latter.

“The coaching staff has a good feel on [what we needed],” Stamkos said. “You have those meetings where things aren’t necessarily pretty watching the video as a player, but it’s one of those moments whereas a group collectively, you have to man up and be better and just pay attention to more details when you don’t have the puck. Those are the harder things to do, but that’s the stuff that wins in playoff time, and the core group of this team knows what that takes.”

That’s not to say losing Sergachev hasn’t stung, or that the Lightning believe they’re in top form without him patrolling their blue line. Forging ahead without Sergachev is just another obstacle in Tampa Bay’s path.

“We’re a much better team when he’s in than out,” Cooper said. “We’ve had to learn to live with it and move on just as years ago when we lost [Stamkos] for a long time in a [2019] playoff run or we lost [Nikita Kucherov] for a year [in 2020-21]. You just have to adapt. The pity party can last for a day, but then you have to move on.”

Fortunately for Tampa Bay, Kucherov has been the molten-hot core of its nucleus this year. The dazzling winger has dominated as a frequent league-leader in points, generating a Hart Trophy-worthy campaign to buoy the Lightning through their inevitable ebbs and flows. It especially kept Tampa Bay afloat while Vasilevskiy rebounded into form.

The Lightning have yearly leaned on Vasilevskiy’s excellence, but the injury clearly set their Vezina Trophy winner back: After his first month in the crease, Vasilevskiy was 7-7-0 with an .899 save percentage and 3.01 goals-against average. Tampa Bay oscillated between Vasilevskiy and backup Jonas Johansson until Vasilevskiy began to look like himself again right around (wait for it) March into April, when he was outstanding at 9-2-1 with a .918% and 2.33 GAA.

Kucherov’s other teammates eventually caught on, too, and the uptick in production across the board made every difference.

By the end of March, Brayden Point had 12 goals in 12 games, Stamkos punched in 17 points in 13 games and Hedman added 12 points in 12 games.

Oh, and Kucherov hit another high note, too, collecting 26 points in 13 games. Casual.

If it weren’t for Kucherov’s consistency, the Lightning would have had an even steeper climb up the standings. He’s without question the team’s MVP, and Hedman believes that candidacy should expand past their dressing room walls.

“[There’s] no debate in my mind [who should win the Hart],” Hedman said. “Just the way he’s carried this team through the adversity we’ve faced and the tough start that we had, he kept producing and trying to get us out of the slump. Now that we have, he’s still producing at an incredibly high level and he’s played big minutes. He’s the smartest player in hockey.”

Lightning GM Julien BriseBois had to be intelligent, too, in supporting Kucherov & Co., but Brisebois’ position heading into the trade deadline was (unsurprisingly) familiar: depth roles having to be filled, with little salary cap space with which to do it.

Stop if you’ve heard this one before, but Tampa Bay found its solutions again.

THE LIGHTNING HAVE A WAY of welcoming fresh faces.

In 2019-20, the Lightning brought in Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow at the trade deadline to help Tampa Bay lift the Cup. The Lightning did it again in 2020-21 with the addition of David Savard. In 2021-22, it was Nicholas Paul and Brandon Hagel joining Tampa Bay’s ranks, and they’ve continued to thrive with the Lightning since.

So BriseBois knew the benefit of bringing in veterans. He found them in landing Anthony Duclair from the San Jose Sharks for a prospect and 2025 seventh-round draft choice, and Matt Dumba (plus a 2025 seventh-round pick) from the Arizona Coyotes for a 2027 fifth-round selection. Both trades followed a typical Tampa Bay pattern of identifying key, depth-related needs and targeting the ideal players to address them.

Naturally, they’ve been a hit already. Since the March 8 deadline, Duclair has emerged as a top-line winger, collecting five goals and 10 points in 11 games, while Dumba has settled into a reliable, third-pairing role.

“The trade deadline [this year] I think was huge,” Hedman said. “For us, we added some pieces, and that’s kind of when our game started to click at a top level. We’ve had some runs throughout the year but for us mostly, after the trade deadline, we’ve been able to kind of cement ourselves with the way we want to play.”

Tampa Bay has remained loyal to many players from its championship run, but there were inevitable cap casualties, too, such as Yanni Gourde, Ryan McDonagh, Alex Killorn, Coleman and Goodrow. Replacing those players year after year is hardly a straightforward task, but somehow the Lightning have become masters of the craft.

“It’s so hard to win in this league,” Stamkos said. “Even the core guys that are still here, as many guys as we’ve lost, we brought in guys that have that same pedigree and management has always done an unbelievable job of just giving us that added boost come trade deadline with making moves. This year, maybe we didn’t have the capital that we had in other years to make big trades but for us, those were big moves. You add a top-six forward and reliable defenseman, and that’s exactly what we need and both those guys bring an element of obvious skill on the ice but character in the room, too. You lose some of those players over the years who just are glue guys in the room, and those [new] guys have fit in really well and sparked us I think.”

The Lightning’s second-half surge wouldn’t have been complete without a little youth movement. Rookie Emil Lilleberg, 23, has been stationed next to Dumba on Tampa’s blue line, and freshman Mitchell Chaffee, 26, can lately be found in a third-line slot with Paul and Michael Eyssimont. They, along with Max Crozier in previous stretches, have been a shot in the arm for the club’s overall mood.

“The youthful energy that has been brought into this room has been great,” Stamkos said. “They’ve done an amazing job on the ice but just that anxiousness, that nervousness, that energy that you have in the room for these young guys, I think that has been a help as well, maybe a little jolt. They’ve certainly played extremely well for us.”

Tampa Bay has used skaters old and new to up the ante on special teams. Going back to March 1, the Lightning own the league’s fifth-ranked power play (28.2%) and it’s No. 1 penalty kill (95.0%), and are tied for the lead in shorthanded goals (3).

The stars have, to put it mildly, aligned for the Lightning. Clinching a seventh consecutive playoff berth seems inevitable. And no, Tampa Bay doesn’t care which team it faces in the first round.

It’s the getting back there that counts — and the incomparable journey that awaits.

SOME EXPERIENCES IN LIFE might have a shelf life. Competing for a Cup isn’t one of them.

That’s what makes the Lightning’s current trajectory so fun — and all the hard days behind (and potentially ahead) of them so worthwhile.

“When you’ve been to the top of the mountain and you have that feeling, it’s almost like an addiction,” Stamkos said. “You want it again because it feels so amazing. You’ve accomplished your ultimate dream and then for the guys who have done that, that’s what drives you to do it again. And I think for the most part, the guys that are still here from those teams still feel that way.”

The exhilaration of winning might never fade, but players themselves do. Careers end in all sorts of ways, and the saddest one is with regrets. That thought alone is enough to fuel those lucky enough to remain in the fight.

“It’s the hunger that doesn’t stop,” Hedman said. “We’re not going to play this game until we’re 45 or 50. It’s a short lifespan, and you’ve just got to embrace every opportunity that you have, and you can’t take anything for granted just because you had success in the past. It’s just making sure that you embrace every situation, embrace every year and you look at it like it might your last chance. And that hunger we have in this room is what’s impressed me the most.”

Cooper’s perspective on winning it all spans beyond just the Lightning lens. It goes out to an appreciation for the fact that Tampa Bay didn’t see its early exodus last spring as a sign of its inevitable demise. It was more like a wakeup call about what’s at stake — and that’s extending the Lightning’s window long past what even they initially believed might be possible.

Tampa Bay has the formula down. Just win, baby.

“It was devastating when we lost to Toronto,” Cooper said. “It’s [lost] time in the league. Not everybody’s blessed to get to play for 15, 20 years. Guys get to play six, seven, eight and in that time, you’ve got to hope you play on a team that makes the playoffs. There are some guys in this league that haven’t had that experience. And they [never] get to have the experience. We’ve had that experience, but you cherish it because you don’t know when you go back. You just don’t know.”