Is it possible this is the Lightning's most impressive journey yet?

Is it possible this is the Lightning’s most impressive journey yet?

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TAMPA — The coming days will be filled with glory or disappointment. A third consecutive Stanley Cup or the heartbreak of falling just short.

So let today be about the present. Before the frenzy of the Stanley Cup final against Colorado, take a moment to appreciate a majestic run from a special group of players.

Because, honestly, we’ve never seen anything like this Lightning team in Tampa Bay. They have filled three calendars with memories of hits, blocks and shots. Of discipline, resolve and courage.

The 2-1 victory against the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final on Saturday night was the 11th consecutive opponent vanquished by the Lightning in a playoff series. You would have to go back nearly 40 years to find a longer stretch of success in the NHL.

And, though the journey is not complete, this might be their most impressive trek yet. It’s not just the way they retooled in the offseason, or the way they’ve persevered without Brayden Point, or how they came from behind against both Toronto and New York.

It’s all of those things, plus an historic gauntlet of competition through the conference final.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper is greeted at the bench by Zach Bogosian (24) at the end of the conference clincher. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Since the league eliminated tie games in 2006, no team has knocked off three successive 50-win teams to reach the Stanley Cup final. Until now. Until this Lightning team.

“You’ve got to look at the players. I sit back, and I’m just impressed. I’m impressed by them,” coach Jon Cooper said. “Watch their growth, watch the pain.”

Growth? Yeah, they’ve grown. From 2015 to 2019, they won more regular-season games than any team in the NHL but could not figure out how to get their names on the Stanley Cup.

Bread? Oh yeah, they’ve had their share of hurt. They lost in Game 6 of the 2015 Stanley Cup final, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 2016 and again in 2018, and then were humiliated by a first-round sweep as the NHL’s No. 1 seed in 2019.

Yet they refused to hide. They refused to crawl. They acknowledged their shortcomings, they stuffed their egos in their lockers and they came back with a new resolve. They came back as a team reborn.

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“This group is pretty, pretty amazing,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “Pretty special.”

And that’s why you shouldn’t let this moment pass without reflection. Without acknowledging what they’ve done and how they’ve done it.

Think about Stamkos against the Rangers on Saturday night. The wrist shot from out of nowhere for the first goal, and then the game-winner 21 seconds after New York had tied the score in the third period. Mostly, think about a player who came into the league as a scorer, fought through a biblical list of injuries and emerged on the other side as a playmaker, a two-way defender, a leader.

Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates his third-period goal.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates his third-period goal. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Think about Nikita Kucherov and his no-look passes that beat Florida in the final seconds of Game 2 and then New York in the final minutes of Game 3. Think about how he has matured. How his acceptance of Cooper’s ultimatums paved the way for every other player to buy into the system.

Think about Alex Killorn trying to play on a broken leg last postseason. Think about Ryan McDonagh throwing his body in front of every screaming puck shot in his direction.

Think about Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy and Ondrej Palat.

Think about the players they’ve lost, the players they’ve integrated and the players that have returned year after year in the belief that they had discovered something remarkable.

“When you get knocked around, when you get knocked down that many times and the team still comes back, you know you’ve got something. It just took us some time,” Cooper said. “And know they’re back and they just keep coming back. To back. To back.

“It’s so awesome to be apart of. But it takes a lot of belief, a lot of courage and a group from the owner all the way down to stick together.”

It wasn’t easy. Particularly this year when they were behind Toronto and needed consecutive wins in Games 6 and 7, or when they lost the first two games to New York in this series.

It was easy to doubt them. Heck, I was flinging doubt all around the ice.

But this group has faith in its methods. These players have faith in one another. And Tampa Bay should have faith in a team that has won 44 playoff games across three seasons, and still approaches every series with a hunger that devours opponents bit by bit.

No, this journey is not yet complete.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t stop today appreciate just how incredible the ride has been.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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