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The Tampa Bay Lightning have been a perennial Stanley Cup contender for the better half of the last decade, but 2020 may finally be their year.
The 2004 Lightning were the last team to win the Stanley Cup prior to the salary cap era, an era where management and players have seemingly done everything right except for earning the evasive trophy.
In 2015, the Lightning fought their way to the Stanley Cup Final, losing to Chicago in six games as the Blackhawks leaned on experience to claim their third cup in five seasons. Nine players from the 2015 squad — including Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and the currently injured Steven Stamkos — remain fixtures of the team, still eager to lift the Cup.
That core, and additions like Brayden Point and Mikhail Sergachev, have kept the team a threat in the ensuing five seasons, but each spring has ended prematurely for a franchise priding itself on the cusp of winning it all.
Last season, after matching the all-time record for wins in the regular season with a 62-16-4 record, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning were eliminated by the eight-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets in a four-game sweep.
A season for the record books ended suddenly with shock, disappointment, and frustration. In the end, it was yet another season where the franchise with nothing more than more hard-learned lessons and compounding experience.
Varying storylines dating back to the spring of 2019 have pegged the Lightning as missing out on “their year,” and argue they are becoming the modern-day San Jose Sharks as a great team that just can’t get over the hump. Instead, they are looking like a fitting comparison for a different team: the 2018 Washington Capitals.
After winning the 2017 Presidents’ Trophy and stocking up at the deadline, the Capitals failed to make it past the second round for the ninth consecutive playoffs since the addition of franchise cornerstone Alex Ovechkin. After missing “their year,” the Capitals lost key pieces, but cumulative experience and lowered expectations carried them to the title the following year.
Now, with similarly lowered expectations, the Lightning are playing like they are ready to finally use the last five years of frustration in their favor.
Last spring, the Lightning showed they had no answer for the Blue Jackets’ gritty, hard-nosed team that finished checks and refused to back down. This time around the Lightning were ready for proverbial playoff hockey. They added their own gritty, body-on-the-line players including Patrick Maroon, Zach Bogosian, Blake Coleman, and Barclay Goodrow.
The added sandpaper of the four newest faces has combined for four goals and 16 points over the team’s 13 postseason games. Maroon, a 2019 Stanley Cup winner with the St. Louis Blues, and the other three have rubbed off on the rest of the room, where skill is coupled with laying the body on the line and ceasing to give even an inch to the opposition.
They helped wear down Columbus in an opening-round rematch, where Tampa won in five games, including a five-overtime thriller. Revenge had been served.
The Lightning continued to tilt the ice heavily as they won the next round in another five games. This time, they held off a Boston Bruins team that lost in the Stanley Cup Final the year prior and has been an annual contender much like themselves.
All the while, the Lightning have been without Stamkos, a five-time 40-goal scorer that has a natural edge to his game, adds another layer to the team, and fuels the power play. The team has already announced that Stamkos’ unspecified injury will keep him out of the lineup for the Eastern Conference Final.
Then Lightning kicked off the Eastern Conference Final with a definitive 8-2 win over the New York Islanders — theoretically their toughest matchup of the playoffs to date. A five-point night (2 G, 3 A) from Point, a Conn Smythe favorite, showed the Lightning are up to the task against the defensive powerhouse that is the Islanders.
The Islanders, led by 2018 Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz, finished sixth in fewest goals against during the regular season and have continued to stymy opponents in the playoffs. A defensive-first approach reinforced with natural offense, grit, and a deep forward group will make for an exciting matchup in the East.
As the top-scoring team in the regular season, Tampa Bay will need to stick to their style to maintain momentum or those years of frustration can come back fast to haunt a team that suddenly hits such a defensive force.
Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.