EDMONTON — It’s no secret the Lightning have had to learn many tough lessons over the last few years in their quest for the Stanley Cup. But with each heartbreaking ending to seasons filled with large expectations, it’s made the team so much stronger.
Patrick Sharp saw first-hand what the Lightning were capable of when he and his Chicago Blackhawks teammates battled the Lightning in the 2015 Stanley Cup final.
Back then a young, upstart Tampa Bay team lost in six games to Chicago, which capped off an incredible run of three Cups in five years.
Now, Sharp is watching a team that has faced so much criticism with past playoff failures silence those critics.
"I saw a team that was capable of winning the Stanley Cup; it was an incredible playoff series,” said Sharp, who’s now an analyst for NBC. “I saw a young team that you just knew was going to be a special team moving forward.”
Sharp sees a lot of similarities between the Lightning and the Blackhawks teams that dominated the early part of this decade.
After losing the conference final to Detroit in 2009, Chicago reached its first Cup final the following year. It was the start of the Blackhawks' mini-dynasty, but they learned a lot of hard lessons in the years building up to that first Cup in 2010.
“It’s all a learning process,” said Sharp. “The core group of players, it was their first run. We had to learn to manage our emotions. In the early days, if we scored a goal, we felt we would go all the way. If we lost, we felt it was the end.”
Sharp was part of the Blackhawks core that featured the likes of captain Jonathan Toews, wingers Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and goaltender Corey Crawford.
They were surrounded by so many other veterans that helped along the way. The Lightning have nine players on their roster that experienced the Cup final defeat to the Blackhawks, and since then they’ve gone through the gamut of emotions together.
“There were 1,000 plays made and 1,000 reasons why the Blackhawks won; we had trust in one another that we’d get it done in the biggest moments,” recalled Sharp. "I could trust the captain to always step up and be at his best when we needed him, and I had faith in every other guy to step up when called upon.
“We had a group of guys that were as competitive as I ever played with.”
After hitting arguably one of the lowest points in franchise history last season after getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round of the playoffs, this Lightning team looks like a team out for vengeance.
It’s been an incredible run for the Lightning and one that will go down as one of the most memorable — not just because they’ve had to play this entire run in a bubble and are on the brink of winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in 16 years.
This team with sky-high expectations for the better half of the decade is showing what it is truly capable of.
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Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point are the first teammates since Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in 2009 to score 30-plus points in a postseason (including the round robin).
Victor Hedman’s 10 playoff goals almost match his goal total from the regular season (11). He only trails Brian Leetch’s 11 goals in 1994 and Paul Coffey’s 12 in 1985.
And what’s even more remarkable is they’re doing it without their captain, Steven Stamkos, who’s missed all but 2:47 of their playoff run.
“Kucherov is a guy that comes to mind right away. When I think back to 2015, he was on a real good line putting up numbers, but he was in a secondary role. Now, he’s a top-line guy; you’re seeing him against other teams' top lines, and he’s dominating,” said Sharp.
“Hedman’s a guy that’s put up big numbers and makes monster plays. He was such a force back then, but he’s become one of the best defensemen in the world now, and you’re really seeing it in this run.”
Sharp sees a team that has matured over the years. They’re figuring out not just how to win in the playoffs, but no matter what adversity gets thrown their way. They’re stepping up and creating their own big moments.
The Lightning may not have had a record-breaking season like they did in 2018-19, but they’ve shown they’re a team that won’t make up excuses.
“I’m looking at their roster, and they have star talent at every position. But they also have a real want and a drive to win,” said Sharp. "Losing last year to Columbus the way they did with all those expectations had to be embarrassing, and I’m sure it’s a feeling they’ll never forget.
“They had to wait a long time to get their chance, and I think the Columbus series (this year) was a turning point for this organization. Seeing how competitive (the series) was and how competitive this Lightning team is ... Since then, they’ve been on a mission to win the Cup.”