Road to the Cup keeps coming through Tampa, but Lightning needs to switch lanes

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is well aware of the trappings of expectations when it comes to winning the Cup, adding that the team's near-misses guarantee nothing this season: “It's time to do it." (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is well aware of the trappings of expectations when it comes to winning the Cup, adding that the team's near-misses guarantee nothing this season: “It's time to do it." (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published October 5

TAMPA — Our oh-so-close hockey team is back in business.

The business of finishing.

The Lightning opens its season amid ever-present expectations and the usual memories of expectations dashed.

The talent, the returning core, the speed everywhere, the goaltending says Jon Cooper's team is next in line to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Or is it?

The road to the Cup has run through Tampa in recent seasons. Only it's not a straight line. Team after team has had its passport stamped by the Lightning on the way to the Stanley Cup. It has been like clockwork.

Is it the Lightning's time?

"You can't think, 'Well, this is our year, it's our turn to win,' " Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "It couldn't be further from the truth. It gets harder. The expectations make it harder. The last three or four years, you heard the predictions. We've now dealt with going to the finals as underdogs. We've dealt with going to the conference finals as favorites. There's not much we haven't dealt with. It's time to do it."

Half past time, in fact.

In three of the past four seasons, the Lightning has made the playoffs, winning a combined 150 games, including a franchise record 54 last season.

Only it hasn't mattered come the only season that matters.

In 2015, the young, fearless Lightning led the Blackhawks 2-1 in the Stanley Cup final, then lost three straight. In 2016, the Lightning was a win away from a return to the final but lost Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference final to the Penguins, who went on to win the Cup.

Then came last season, the capper. The Lightning led Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, those seemingly terminal underachievers, in the conference final. Tampa Bay was a win away from taking the series, but it didn't score a goal in the final two games. Washington went on to win the Cup.

In the final, Washington beat Vegas, which had the gall to make it to the final in its inaugural season, nearly destroying the notion that it takes patience to win the Cup, suffering, a long line.

And the Lightning is still in line.

"The reason I applaud our group the last few years is because as soon as there are four teams left, we're one of them," Cooper said. "Unfortunately, we're just not the last one."

Yes, there is a lot to applaud. The Lightning has made its three runs (it missed the playoffs in 2017) while turning over talent. It has done it with two different scoring stars (Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov) and two different goalies (Ben Bishop, then Andrei Vasilevskiy) and all kinds of tweaks on defense, in and around Victor Hedman growing into a Norris Trophy winner.

And it hasn't mattered.

Here we are again, with the Lightning a Cup favorite.

"That's the hope, right?" Stamkos said. "That's the plan. If you get caught up in expectations, I mean, Washington had all those expectations. And then there were no expectations and they win. There's no formula."

You can lay on with the explanations — and excuses. That Chicago had more experience and the Lightning was a little cocky after beating the Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final at Madison Square Garden.

That Pittsburgh was simply the better team.

That Ovechkin and the Caps had the wind at their backs after finally getting past Crosby and the Penguins, and the Lightning thought it had it knocked after muscling past the Bruins.
Hedman sees another trait.

"I think the common number is zero," he said.

"We lost because we didn't score," Cooper said.

No goals in Game 6 when Chicago closed the Lightning out for the Cup. One goal in Game 7 at Pittsburgh in 2016. And nothing, not from Stamkos, Kucherov, from anyone in nearly the final eight periods against Washington. Not only did the stars not align for the Lightning, they got shut out. So, here they are.

"Until you can win it, you don't know the formula," Stamkos said. "You've got to go through it to understand what it takes. We have tons of experience for when we get those opportunities again. But you never know when you're going to get them."

Defenseman Dan Girardi has been in line for two teams. He was on coach John Tortorella's Cup-favorite Rangers team that lost to the Devils in the 2012 conference final. He was on the Rangers when they lost to the Kings in the 2014 Cup final and when they lost the 2015 conference final to the Lightning. And he was on the Lightning last season against the Caps.

"At some point, you've got to realize you're not going to get many more chances like this," Girardi said. "It's got to keep driving you, knowing that you're that close."

No one gets so much as a badge for nearly winning the Cup. This isn't a charity golf tournament, with a prize for closest to the pin.

Is there a hump with this team's name on it?

"There are so many good teams that never win it," Stamkos said. "You just don't want to be one."