If the end is near, someone needs to tell the Lightning

John Romano | They have lost key players and are no longer a chic pick for experts, but the Lightning are not ready to concede an inch in 2022-23.
The masks, pads and sticks are back, and so are the Lightning. Some of the faces have changed, but the Lightning are attempting to be the first team since the 1980s Oilers to reach five Stanley Cup finals in less than 10 years.
The masks, pads and sticks are back, and so are the Lightning. Some of the faces have changed, but the Lightning are attempting to be the first team since the 1980s Oilers to reach five Stanley Cup finals in less than 10 years. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sept. 23, 2022|Updated Sept. 23, 2022

BRANDON — If this were a movie, the credits would have rolled months ago.

The story of a team’s rise through setbacks and heartbreaks to become back-to-back champions before falling valiantly, maddeningly close to a third consecutive title.

Cue the theme music as they skated off the Amalie Arena ice after Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final against Colorado, never to perform together as a band of mismatched brothers again.

But tell me, what if that wasn’t really the end?

What if the Lightning have a sequel to tell?

• • •

It’s not likely. The idea of another Stanley Cup run, that is.

The gap between the Lightning and the rest of the Eastern Conference has been growing narrower over the years and may finally have flipped. The Panthers. The Maple Leafs. The Hurricanes. Oddsmakers say all three teams are more likely to win the conference than Tampa Bay this season.

Realistically, the idea of a team reaching the Stanley Cup final five times in nine years is unheard of in the salary-cap era of the NHL.

But are you willing to bet against the Lightning?

There is something indescribable about this group. Something born of more than just speed and skill. Something that was forged during the five years between a Stanley Cup appearance in 2015 and the disaster of the 2019 first-round exit in Columbus.

You can crunch the numbers, you can count the number of longtime contributors that walked away in the offseason, but can you dismiss a team that still has a handful of future Hall of Famers in the locker room and an instinct for the kill?

“I still think that we’re a team that will be competing for the Stanley Cup at the end of the season,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “That’s the mindset that we still have.

“Sure, there are a lot of factors that are probably going against us in terms of losing some really good players. People are going to talk about, you know, the core is getting a little older. But I still think the window is open.”

By now, you know the challenges ahead. The Lightning lost Ondrej Palat, who accumulated more postseason points than any player not named Nikita Kucherov in franchise history. They lost Ryan McDonagh, who coach Jon Cooper said was as valuable as any player on the roster on the way to the 2021 Stanley Cup. They lost Jan Rutta, who was paired with Victor Hedman on the blue line.

The salary cap has taken top-end talent while thinning the bench, too.

But the fact is, much of the core group remains intact. Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Alex Killorn have been together since that 2015 Cup final loss to Chicago. Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak and Pat Maroon were here for the back-to-back titles in 2020 and ‘21.

The team picture may have some holes, but the culture is no different.

“If we were 100% healthy right now, and based on our cap restraints, I think we’d only have four new players on our opening-night roster versus where we ended last year,” general manager Julien BriseBois said. “It’s actually not much of a turnover. And one of those (new) players is (Vladislav) Namestnikov, who was here for a long, long time and is already familiar with many of our players, coaches and environment.”

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Yes, they are older than the average team. Yes, they have some players returning from injuries. Yes, there is more parity than ever in the Eastern Conference, which makes a playoff run more daunting.

But when I asked Cooper on Friday morning if the team has a different vibe because it no longer has a target on its back, he politely disagreed.

“I don’t know if we’re going to go in the season and not have a target (on us). I think we’ve almost set a permanent one just having been to three straight finals,” Cooper said. “You’re not sneaking up on an opponent. Everybody knows you’re coming.

“Yes, has our depth taken a hit? Have we lost some of our regulars? You’re going to miss the guys that have left, but you’ve got to embrace the new. We’re looking ahead. We’ve got a core group here that expects to win. That’s what we expect to do.”

They have been among the best teams in the NHL for nearly a decade. No team has won as many games or scored as many goals in the regular season as the Lightning since 2014-15. They have won 84 postseason games, which is almost twice as many as any other franchise during that span.

Was Game 6 the end of an era? Was it the end of this particular Lightning story?

The curtain is getting ready to open again.

Contact John Romano at Follow @Romano_TBTimes.

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