Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: No more oh-so-close. It's time for the Lightning to win the Stanley Cup

TAMPA — Time to win a Stanley Cup, boys.

For the past three seasons, the Lightning has come close. It has been a contender. The up-and-comer. The franchise full of potential. The team on the verge.

Three seasons ago, it finished second in its division. Two season ago, it went to the Stanley Cup final. Last season, it came within a game of going back to the Cup final.

All good stuff.

But sooner or later, you have to win the whole shebang. Sooner or later, you have to win a Stanley Cup.

Or else you wake up one day and realize that the window of opportunity is closed, that your best days are behind you.

"You got to make the best of every opportunity," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said.

That's because you never know when the next opportunity is going to come.

For instance, Johnson said, think about former Lightning forward Brenden Morrow. He reached the Cup final as a 21-year-old rookie in 2000 with the Stars. His next trip to the final didn't come until he was with the Lightning in 2015. He was 36.

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"I know that really resonated with me," Johnson said, "and I believe it resonated with everyone else on this team."

Little has changed with the Lightning over the past couple of years. The core of the team is among the best in hockey and remains the same: Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Nikita Kucherov and Ben Bishop. Jon Cooper has established himself as one of the brightest coaches in the game. The Lightning has scoring, grit and the experience of going through just about everything a team can go through.

It has had major injuries to major players. It has had contract squabbles and uncertainty. It has had controversies, such as the Marty St. Louis trade and the Jonathan Drouin soap opera of quitting the team and returning to become a star last season.

This team has seen it all, survived it all, done it all.

Well, except win a Cup.

"It's hard to get there," Cooper said. "It's really, really hard. We've played more playoff games than any team the last two years. I can sit here and say our last couple of years have been really, really successful, but they haven't been what we've wanted. The ultimate prize is to raise the Stanley Cup."

So every year that goes by means the window is closing.

"Make your own window," Cooper said, somewhat defiantly. "Whether expectations are there or not, our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. But as I look around — and I'm very fortunate to be a coach in the National Hockey League — if I was going to pick a team to be behind the bench of, it would be this one."

If there was ever a season in which it looked like the stars were aligned for Tampa Bay, it would be this one.

Stamkos' contract is done. Kucherov's contract is done. Drouin seems happy. Everyone except for Ryan Callahan is healthy, and he could be back in a few weeks.

And even if something was to go wrong, you get the sense that the Lightning would survive it.

"You never want go through these situations where major players get hurt at bad times," Cooper said. "(But) we've really learned to turn the page. You come to work every day and look at the 20 guys in the lineup and (ask), 'How are we going to win this hockey game?' "

More often than not, the Lightning has answered that question by going out and winning. There is no woe-is-me. There is no what-else-can-go-wrong? There is no packing it in and saying, "This just isn't our night or month or season."

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Still. The past three seasons have ended with a loss.

"We've been close the last two years, but close isn't good enough," Johnson said. "You don't really get anything for second or third place. That's not what you want."

The worry is that good teams are made up of good players, and eventually there's a salary crunch.

"You go deep in the playoffs," center Valtteri Filppula, "you tend to lose guys moving forward."

That will eventually happen to the Lightning. Before it does, however, there's one thing it needs to do, and it needs to do it now:

Win a Stanley Cup.

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