One of them was the path of least resistance. The one where a team that amassed 128 regular-season points and 325 goals believed its kung fu was still the strongest style, and viewed the upset as a glitch rather than a systemic failure.
Steven Stamkos, the team's captain, said that path was closed. "I think the biggest mistake a player could make is saying, 'Let's just get back to the playoffs and do it different this time.'"
There was also the path of overreaction. It's the path that another offensive juggernaut took back in 2010, after the Washington Capitals were shocked in a No. 1 vs. No. 8 series by the Montreal Canadiens. Until the Lightning were broomed by Columbus, that Capitals loss to the Habs was the most psychologically damaging one to a franchise that I had ever witnessed.
During the series, then-Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said, "I don't think we have to blow everything up and change the world to be successful." By December, during an eight-game losing streak, Boudreau would announce to the Capitals' locker room that they'd start playing the neutral zone trap.
It was a crisis of confidence I witnessed play out over multiple years, as Boudreau was fired for a true trap-happy coach in Dale Hunter, who was replaced by an offensive coach in Adam Oates, who led the Capitals to their only non-playoff season in the past 11, and was fired along with GM George McPhee.
The Lightning haven't gone down this path. At least not yet.
"In the regular season, we were pretty successful. What happened for us in the playoffs, this doesn't have to be a big huge system change," said coach Jon Cooper. "But are there tweaks? Do you have to adapt? There's no question."
The final path is the one the Lightning are currently strolling down, filled with tweaks and adjustments and calibrations and fine-tuning. The one where they identify some parts that need repairing, without scrapping the engine.
"Our group is known as a high-flying, high-octane offensive team," said Stamkos. "It's great. It's entertaining hockey. But come playoff time, it's a different animal. We realize that."
The thing about this path? It's a bumpy one. Wednesday night's win over the Pittsburgh Penguins was their third in four games after a middling start, and following a 6-2 dismantling at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche at home. They're now 5-3-1. They're seventh in offense (3.44 goals per game) and 17th in defense (3.22 goals against per game). They're under 50% in shot attempts at 5-on-5, and they're 12th in expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 (51.28).
This is not the team that jumped out to a 7-1-1 record last season. It could be. But that's not what the Lightning are trying to be right now.
"We have a plan. That's what we have. And we are slowly improving and executing our plan. It's been really nice to watch what we've done," said Cooper after the Penguins game. "We've won three of four. We've played some playoff teams in that run. When you get rewarded with the results, it stamps a little validity to it. But there's so much time left."
So what's the plan? The Penguins game offered a glimpse:
1. Take fewer penalties
The Lightning took more minor penalties (640) than any other team in the NHL since 2017. They had more penalty minutes in three of the four losses against Columbus. And in their Game 7 conference final losses to the Capitals in 2018 and the Penguins in 2016. Against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, they had four to the Penguins' 10 penalty minutes. That's the plan.
2. Make smarter, simpler plays
Pardon the pun, but the Lightning were a force of nature when they were on last season. They won 30 games by a margin of three or more goals. It's easy to let the fundamentals slip when you're driving a steamroller. So the plan says that getting back to basics in the defensive end is essential. "We weren't really inclined to make those easy plays at the end of last year," Stamkos said.
3. Taste adversity
Cooper infamously said after last season that the Lightning didn't play enough "meaningful games" during their breeze to the Presidents' Trophy. It's a notion that has been parroted by other Lightning players leading into this season: That it came too easily for them, compared to the mad sprint the Blue Jackets made to the playoffs.
So a little adversity could go a long way. Like having to rally with two third-period goals to defeat the Penguins. The Lightning trailed going into the third period just 21 times last season. It's happened four times in nine games this season.
Cooper's message in the locker room before the third against the Penguins? "There's still a lot of time left in this game. We're doing a lot of good things here. It does suck to be down 2-1, but we felt we shouldn't be," he said.
The best thing for the Lightning, honestly? To be a little worse. To put the work in to play the style of hockey they believe is necessary for playoff success. To toughen up so a punch to the mouth in the playoffs doesn't stagger them. It's not ideal to slip down into the 2-vs.-3 matchup in the first round. But it might bring out something in the Lightning that a series many felt was a de facto bye didn't.
What's wrong with the Lightning is that they're trying to get it right.
"Do you ever really put [the upset] away? It's going to be in some record book somewhere. It's going to be details, forever," said Cooper. "For sure it's going to come up. But we've accepted it. It happened. We have to own what happened."
This is a challenging one. Doug Glatt is the titular goon from the movie "Goon" and "Goon: Last of the Enforcers." He never played for the Rangers, at least in canon. But as someone who respects the fan-fiction community ... like, maybe in this person's mind he did play for them? It's an entirely new category -- the FanFic Foul -- but we'll actually allow it, for the sake of art.
The enemy of my enemy is John Tortorella
I don't have much in common with Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella. We're both American. We have a mutual affection for the canine species. We've both yelled at Larry Brooks. That's about it.
But it turns out, we have additional common ground. Torts hates the shootout.
As you know, the shootout is a plague that has infected hockey for the past 14 years. It's illogical. A competitive team game should not end with the artificial removal of teammates from its definitive moment. There's not a pass attempted nor a defenseman on the ice playing in position. And it's worth the same number of points as a victory earned during 60 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey! That's nuts!
The shootout's biggest sin? That a gimmick created to generate highlights and send the fans home satisfied has grown tedious. This is especially true after the NHL was administered a syringe of adrenaline to its heart in the form of the 3-on-3 overtime. Predictability has no home there. Compare that with the shootout, where you might not know who will score the game-winning goal, but you sure do know how it'll be scored. (Hint: on an undefended breakaway.)
The irascible Tortorella says it's time for the shootout to go. "That overtime's dynamite. They should just ... I don't know what we're waiting for to get rid of this shootout stuff. I know they're worried about the time limit. [But] it's not going to last long. If it goes past five minutes, it's not going to be many more minutes after five. I think it's just dynamite."
Did we ... just ... become ... BEST FRIENDS?
Seriously, the 3-on-3 is appointment viewing. No matter the game, if it's going to OT, I'm firing up Center Ice and watching it. And then flipping back to the "Shark Tank" reruns if/when the shootout hits.
I understand the issues with regular-season fatigue and the concerns for injury. All the more reason to win quickly. I understand goalies hate 3-on-3. But who cares about them, for they're paid to deprive joy.
Dump the shootout. Extend the 3-on-3. John Tortorella thinks it's dynamite. And you don't want to make him angry, do you?
Listen to ESPN On Ice
Fantastic podcast this week, as Emily Kaplan and I spoke with Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy about the Perfection Line, what he learned last postseason and his most prized hockey card. Plus, good teams playing poorly, a debate about hockey gear and the usual whimsy! Listen to it here, and be sure to rate and review it.
Dreger: I am not Paul Marner
Back in June, we brought you news of an NHL meme born out of the Mitch Marner free-agent contract drama with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Darren Dreger, the venerable hockey insider with TSN, was a leading newsmaker on that beat. Many fans, in and out of Toronto, speculated that Dreger was a mouthpiece for the Marner camp, and in particular, the player's father Paul Marner. This speculation eventually mutated into a bit where Dreger would tweet news and then legions of fans would reply, "Thanks, Paul." It was all quite savage.
Dreger recently appeared on The Scrum Podcast, which covers Canadian sports media, and discussed his reaction to the accusation.
"I can say to you, with 100 percent sincerity and honesty, that until very recently I had never had a single conversation or communication with Paul Marner. Not a single one. I only spoke to him after the fact, and that was very recently and very brief," said Dreger. "All it takes is some nimrod on social media to make this loose connection, someone finds it funny and then it takes on a plague-like sort of development. I didn't get bogged down by it. I know I covered this story with integrity."
Did Dreger see the "thank you, Paul" stuff that was directed toward him?
"Social media is what it is, right?" he said. "Everyone can create burner accounts and everyone can take their cheap shots and whatever. I don't pay a lot of attention to the replies or mentions. I really, truly don't. The only time I even acknowledged it is publicly is on the radio here in Toronto, when it started getting directed to the family."
In the end, Marner signed his six-year contract extension before the start of the season, and everyone walked away from the bargaining table somewhat happy, even if it was a contentious process.
"What I didn't understand," said Dreger, "was how some of the so-called fan base of the Toronto Maple Leafs turned on a player who has been nothing but fantastic, on and off the ice."
(Just kidding. Dregs put this issue to bed succinctly on this pod, which was also a good listen regarding his work as an insider.)
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Colorado Avalanche
This might seem like an odd flex given that Mikko Rantanen is going to miss "weeks" with a lower-body injury. But anyone who watched his foot turn in a way that feet don't turn has to be relieved that it isn't "months."
Wow, Couture dealing the truth: "It's an inexcusable change. Two guys stayed out for long, looking for offense...It's a selfish play." pic.twitter.com/oilpnNYH41— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) October 23, 2019
After the Sharks' overtime loss in Buffalo, captain Logan Couture went rip city on two teammates who stayed out on the ice too long, which contributed to the game winner. "It's an inexcusable change. Two guys stayed out too long, looking for offense. ... It's a selfish play," he said. The players in question? Meier and Labanc, whose poor change led to Jack Eichel's goal. Couture doubled down on the comments behind closed doors as well.
Winner: John Carlson
As of Thursday, the Capitals defenseman led the entire NHL in scoring with 20 points, three more than Connor McDavid. I've said for the past two years that Carlson's been criminally overlooked in the Norris Trophy voting: Dude won a Stanley Cup, followed it with a 70-point season and still couldn't crack the top three last June. What he needed was a hype man to get his name out there. Alex Ovechkin is that hype man.
Loser: Luca Sbisa
The Anaheim Ducks signed the free-agent defenseman on Tuesday. He was all set to report to the AHL team in San Diego with, again, the chance to move up and live life in Anaheim. Except that when he hit waivers, the Winnipeg Jets -- a team whose qualifications to join their blue line at this point are apparently skates and a pulse -- claimed him. So, in summary: Not San Diego. Not Anaheim. Instead, Manitoba, as winter nears.
Winner: Ralph Krueger
I wrote about the Sabres coach this week, but that's not why he's a winner. He's a winner because a team from Buffalo has the best record in the NHL (8-1-1) and it's entirely possible that it won't be an aberration this time.
Loser: Alexander Gulyavtsev
The head coach of the KHL's Amur Khabarovsk was fined 300,000 rubles (or $4,700) for threatening to set referee Viktor Gashilov's car on fire. He later said he was joking, adding, "I just said car, it's not as if I said apartment." You know, call me a pacifist, but I prefer the NHL's coach's challenge system.
Ryan Lambert explains the Nico Hischier contract: "If nothing else, having a locked-in Hischier behind a potentially locked-in Hughes a few years from now is going to make the Devils formidable down the middle, which is where all great teams start."
Don't sleep on the Coyotes.
Jayna Hefford on the "Dream Gap Tour" and other topics: "That was the first step: To get people to understand where the game was at. The need for something bigger and more sustainable. I think we're down that road. We don't expect this to be easy or short. But we do expect that we're going to keep moving forward and we're pretty happy with the progress that's been made to date."
How an AHL fight is shedding light on the other side of hockey brawls.
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
NHL temperature check: Which teams will continue their hot starts?