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Even without a trophy, this Lightning team deserved your love

John Romano | There was something special about this group, even if it fell short of past Stanley Cup heights.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) and center Steven Stamkos (91) console each other after losing the Stanley Cup final to the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) and center Steven Stamkos (91) console each other after losing the Stanley Cup final to the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jun. 27|Updated Jun. 27

TAMPA — In the end, they had nothing left to give and nowhere left to go. After nine months of relentless pursuit, the reason for their devotion had just been taken away from them.

So they lowered their heads, they leaned on their sticks and they stole the occasional glance down the ice at another team happily celebrating their sudden demise.

And that’s when the damnedest thing happened. In the relative silence of a still-crowded arena, a chant began to arise from the bleachers.

Let’s go Light-ning!

Remorse, I suppose, is for those destined to live with regret. And the Lightning, nor their fans, will have none of that.

When you have played as long, as hard, as valiantly and as gloriously as this group has over the past three seasons, there is no shame in finally falling short.

Even with the Stanley Cup back in the house. Even with history on the line.

Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) and other players salute the crowd Sunday.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) and other players salute the crowd Sunday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Yes, Tampa Bay’s hopes of an historic third consecutive Stanley Cup title fell painfully short Sunday night when Colorado came from behind for a 2-1 victory in Game 6.

“It’s a terrible feeling, but sometimes it’s (necessary) to take a step back and realize how hard it is to get to this position. How proud I am of how we battled to get here,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “That’s a great team over there. Obviously, congratulations to them. They deserve it, they’re the champs.

“But it’s tough. I mean, I feel sick to my stomach for the guys because of how hard we grinded to get here.”

The cost of too many close games, too many blocked shots, too many players with too many doctor’s notes, finally caught up to the Lightning in their 105th game of the season. They could not hold the Avalanche off in the second period, and they did not have the legs to come back in the third.

Instead, they will settle for a rare back-to-back Stanley Cup reign, and a rarer-still three consecutive trips to the NHL’s final round.

“Fortunately, we haven’t felt this sting of a loss in quite some time,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “With the stuff guys were playing through and the opportunity for us to keep on with the success that we’ve had the last couple of years, it definitely stings. We have a great group of guys that care so much for one another. They sacrificed a lot, it was incredible.”

Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper (35) meets with Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) at the conclusion of the third period.
Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper (35) meets with Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) at the conclusion of the third period. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
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This isn’t a mere tale of a team that, once upon a time, finished on top. That’s like saying a band from Liverpool once topped the pop charts.

What the Lightning accomplished was an epic journey of parties, heartache, hubris, setbacks, records, obstacles and, ultimately, loyalty and devotion.

They had moments of glory — an NHL record-tying 62 wins in 2019, five trips to the conference finals and back-to-back Stanley Cups.

They had moments of despair — a first-round sweep against Columbus, two Game 7 losses with a Stanley Cup final on the line and critical injuries to Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point.

Mostly, they stuck together and earned the love and devotion of a community. And it’s a feeling that has continued to grow steadily and deeply for nearly a decade.

For this has been a team that was as lovable as it was successful. Stamkos, Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy were the stars, but Anthony Cirelli, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Pat Maroon, Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson were the heartbeat.

“You remember the teams you win with, regardless of the league you’re coaching in, you’ll always remember those teams,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “You don’t remember as much the ones you don’t win with.

“But I will always remember this team. For what they endured, what they went through to get to this point, you have to marvel at them. It’s a little shock and awe at what this group accomplished to get here.”

Coach Jon Cooper and players look on from the bench as their shot at a third straight Stanley Cup slips away.
Coach Jon Cooper and players look on from the bench as their shot at a third straight Stanley Cup slips away. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The hardest thing to accept will be how close the Lightning were to pulling this off. During the final three games of the series, neither team led by more than a single goal. The Lightning were either tied or had the lead halfway through five of the six games.

Including overtime in Game 4, it was 10 consecutive periods of hair-on-fire, edge-of-your-seat hockey. The stakes were high, the energy was unreal and the level of skill was thrilling.

And now it is all over. For the first time since 2019, the end of a season is not the precursor to a month of celebrations in Tampa Bay.

“We just ran out of gas,” Cooper said. “And it sucks.”

So let go of your dreams, but hold on to your memories. The rest of the world may not yet see this era as a bona fide NHL dynasty, but you’re free to argue otherwise.

Six trips to the conference final in eight years, four trips to the Stanley Cup final and two NHL championships. In the salary cap era, there may not be a more impressive or lengthy run of success.

And so, for posterity’s sake, you should know that the end of Tampa Bay’s stint atop the NHL arrived at 10:48 p.m. on the 26th day of June.

Years from now, the history books will say the Lightning reign lasted for 634 days.

Around Tampa Bay, it will live on forever.

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

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