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Before the chase begins, a quiet thank you to Tampa Bay’s best

John Romano | Even before shooting for a historic third consecutive title, this Lightning team has cemented its legacy as Tampa Bay’s most endearing franchise ever.
Fans gather along the Riverwalk in downtown Tampa on July 12 to celebrate the Lightning winning consecutive Stanley Cups, and the third overall in franchise history.
Fans gather along the Riverwalk in downtown Tampa on July 12 to celebrate the Lightning winning consecutive Stanley Cups, and the third overall in franchise history. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 8

TAMPA — At this stage, it’s all about more for the Lightning. More wins, more glory, more Stanley Cups.

This franchise and fan base are already obsessed with the idea of a history-making third consecutive championship even before the puck drops for the season’s first game. That’s natural, and it can be motivational, too.

But maybe this is the right moment to pause and fully appreciate what the Lightning have already attained before worrying about what they are continuing to chase.

Because the Tampa Bay area has never seen a team like this before, and may never again. In fact, I would argue this version of the Lightning is the greatest team this community has ever known.

It isn’t just the back-to-back titles, which are unique enough. It is the story’s arc that makes the Lightning so endearing. It is the tale of a team that flirted with glory for a long time, became synonymous with heartbreak for a while and finally managed to reach the summit.

Related: Lightning bring focus, experience to chase for three-peat

Because they are all winning at the same time, the Lightning, Bucs and Rays have been lumped together in this narrative of a Tampa Bay sports renaissance. The analytical website fivethirtyeight.com recently suggested Tampa Bay is having the best three-year run of any major market in the last quarter-century.

That may be true, but all of this winning is not created equal.

The Bucs essentially have bought their way into the big time in the past two seasons. Signing Tom Brady, Ndamukong Suh, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette and now Richard Sherman, along with acquiring Rob Gronkowski and Jason Pierre-Paul makes the Bucs look more like a team of mercenaries. Not that it made the boat parade any less enjoyable, but this is not a team that bay area schoolkids have grown up with.

Similarly, the Rays are a franchise in constant flux. The payroll restraints force the Rays to reinvent themselves every offseason, which makes it harder to feel a kinship with the players as they celebrate another division title. Of the 10 Tampa Bay pitchers with the most innings thrown in 2021, only three of them were around in 2018.

The Lightning are a different story altogether.

Tampa Bay fans have watched, from left, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov grow from Lightning draft picks to form the nucleus of the best team in the NHL.
Tampa Bay fans have watched, from left, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov grow from Lightning draft picks to form the nucleus of the best team in the NHL. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat have been skating together for nearly 10 years. Recently departed Tyler Johnson was in that group, too. Tampa Bay has watched these players grow from pink-cheeked prospects to some of the NHL’s most respected and accomplished stars.

The only thing close to this story in Tampa Bay history was the first Bucs Super Bowl team in 2002, when a defense led by Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Ronde Barber came of age together in the late 1990s. But even that team needed a new head coach and a new quarterback to get over the hump, and their reign as NFL champions was brief.

That’s why it’s important to appreciate this Lightning team today. To hope for the best, to shoot for the stars, but to understand that a three-peat requires as much good fortune as talent. Which is why it’s never been done in the NHL’s salary cap era.

Related: Nikita Kucherov may be best example of Lightning’s motivation to win three straight

Think of the obstacles in their path: the loss of the entire third line, which not only provided scoring in the postseason but much of the team’s in-your-face identity; the natural letdown after so much success, which we saw at times during last year’s regular season; the salary cap issues which have thinned the team’s depth; the injuries that have been a hindrance but not yet a grievous problem in recent years.

And that says nothing of how the rest of the NHL has been scheming to take down an organization that has not only been on top, but that seemed — fair or unfair — just a little bit smug after last season’s title.

Honestly, no matter how much talent the Lightning still has on the roster, the odds may finally be tilting against them. That doesn’t mean Tampa Bay won’t win 50 or more games, and that doesn’t mean the Lightning won’t be playing for the Stanley Cup again.

But it does mean you should not forget to stop and appreciate the ride. To appreciate what you have already seen.

And that is the greatest, and most endearing, run of success a franchise from Tampa Bay has ever known.

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

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