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Little by little, this Lightning team will steal your heart

John Romano | Yes, they keep winning but the Lightning also endear themselves with selfless play and devotion.
Lightning players celebrate on the bench as left wing Ondrej Palat scores the empty-net goal to go up 2-0 on the Panthers near the end of Game 4 Monday night.
Lightning players celebrate on the bench as left wing Ondrej Palat scores the empty-net goal to go up 2-0 on the Panthers near the end of Game 4 Monday night. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 24|Updated May 24

TAMPA — All these years later, how do they do it?

Not just the winning. That’s explained easily enough with a stat here and an Andrei Vasilevskiy there.

No, after all the records, awards, championships, farewells, arrivals, injuries, slumps, salary caps, grudges and community heroes, how do they pull off the most remarkable feat in sports?

How do the Lightning make you fall in love all over again?

Because that’s what this group has done. They are two years past the honeymoon and still surprising us every day with new thrills and forgotten sparks.

The temptation is to look at Monday night’s 2-0 victory at Amalie Arena that completed a second-round sweep of Florida, and to think of it simply as a continuation of the back-to-back Stanley Cup titles.

And, in a big-picture sense, that’s accurate enough. But there is more to this story.

The Lightning have become ingrained in Tampa Bay in a way that no other franchise has quite pulled off. Sure, the Bucs have more fans. And the Rays have the benefit of playing America’s Pastime.

But there’s something special about the way the Lightning reinvented themselves after the heartache of the 2019 postseason collapse. They went from a team that dazzled you with skill to a group that impressed you with heart. And two years later, they continue to find ways to remind you of that.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper celebrates victory at the conclusion of Game 4 against the Panthers.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper celebrates victory at the conclusion of Game 4 against the Panthers. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“You’ve got to sacrifice so much (of your) body and that’s part of the plan. You have to do it if you want to win,” coach Jon Cooper said. “These guys are playing a game right now, almost like they have not won a Stanley Cup. Like they’re chasing (it) for the first time.”

Twelve days ago, they were on the brink of elimination. A Game 6 overtime against Toronto that could have ended a season, and maybe an era too.

And from the moment Brayden Point scored the overtime winner against the Maple Leafs, the Lightning have been a team reborn. They have won the next five games while giving up a total of four goals.

There was nothing fancy about the way they pulled it off in Game 4 on Monday night. Steven Stamkos didn’t score. Nikita Kucherov didn’t amaze. Victor Hedman didn’t shine.

The Lightning just pulled together to stop a Florida attack that didn’t seem to let up for the first 30 minutes. They blocked shots. They avoided turnovers. They didn’t commit silly penalties.

They whiffed on some scoring chances and had two goals taken away by missed whistles. And not once did you get the sense that they had lost faith or focus.

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And when the third period rolled around, Pat Maroon swiped at a puck in mid-air and put Tampa Bay up for good. By the time the series ended, the Lightning had outscored Florida 8-0 in the third period.

“This team has been very impressive. The way we compete, the way we stick in there every game. We’re warriors, I mean, blocking shots, whatever it takes,” Maroon said. “It’s been tremendous to watch what we’ve been through the last few years and it’s unbelievable to be a part of it.”

And it’s been just as incredible to watch. To see new players integrated into a lineup and gradually learn that this team is different when the calendar turns to May.

They don’t always glide the way they once did. And the victories have seemed harder to come by. The core group of stars are the same, but they have not dominated like years past.

Eleven games into the postseason, Ross Colton and Corey Perry lead the team in goals. Nick Paul has a plus-four rating and Brandon Hagel is a plus-three.

Really, among the team’s biggest names, only Andrei Vasilevskiy has looked consistently stellar. And Monday night he was as good as ever.

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) is congratulated by  right wing Corey Perry (10) at the conclusion of the third period.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) is congratulated by right wing Corey Perry (10) at the conclusion of the third period. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Never before had a goaltender played so pristine in a playoff game that ended in regulation. Vasilevskiy’s 49 saves were the most in NHL postseason history for a non-overtime shutout.

And so now, the Lightning have won a 10th consecutive postseason series. The only franchises that have ever eclipsed that are the 1980s Islanders and the 1970s Canadiens.

“It’s a special group, no doubt. And the beauty of the group is we’re not satisfied. We want 12 straight,” Stamkos said. “When you take a step back and put things in perspective, especially in the salary cap world we’re in and the parity in our league, it’s a very, very special group.”

That it is. They took on a Toronto team that had a franchise record 115 points and a 60-goal scorer, and won in seven games. And then they took on the Presidents’ Trophy winning Panthers and swept them.

There was a time when the Lightning, win or lose, were always the most talented team on the ice. That’s no longer a certainty. You could argue Florida is just as skilled, if not better.

And, in a way, that make the Lightning more endearing than ever. You could look at the Panthers on Monday night and almost see the ghost of who the Lightning used to be.

One team was desperate, the other was determined.

One goaltender was fortunate, the other was fabulous.

One dream was extinguished, the other was granted another day.

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

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