TORONTO — Here comes the Lightning.
But shhh. They don’t want anyone to pay attention.
I mean, it shouldn’t surprise any of us. But in an Atlantic Division that has seen the Bruins roar out of the gates with no signs of slowing down and the Maple Leafs take off in November and not look back, it’s as if the perennial Stanley Cup finalists finally decided to raise their collective hand from the back row and say, “Hey, don’t forget about us!”
Five wins in a row and winners of eight of their past 10 games, the Bolts arrive for a date in Toronto on Tuesday night looking like their normal Cup-contending selves.
“It’s certainly been more of an under-the-radar season, but I think last year was similar, too, right? We just go about doing our thing,” Tampa captain Steven Stamkos said Monday after practice at Scotiabank Arena. “We know we have that nucleus here that’s been here a while, that’s been through a lot and can navigate the waters of an 82-game schedule and know how to react.”
There’s such an even keel about the Lightning. For so many teams, there are fires to put out every month as they stickhandle through the highs and lows of 82 games. The savvy Bolts have that know-how that allows them to put their head down and focus on getting their game ready for the playoffs.
Enjoyed tackling all angles of @TBLightning run:
Inside development program https://t.co/lWEpNdWEt9
How TB uses analytics https://t.co/VlueQZbWzx
Building culture https://t.co/nOhQx2zVqe
Mental health https://t.co/f6tEmCpN2i
Shadowing a Lightning scout https://t.co/aCmrntk0cH
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithNHL) October 4, 2022
“The one thing for us that I tell the guys all the time: It doesn’t matter where we finish. It’s getting there. You have to get in,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Monday. “You manage your season that way. We go into every single game wanting to win them, but we know that’s not going to happen.
“The guys have done a great job of just navigating our way into the playoffs, and when we get there, we’re ready to go.”
So here they are again, it seems. Whether people are tired of them or not.
It feels like so much of the hockey world was ready to turn the page on the Lightning after the Stanley Cup Final loss to Colorado last season, ending Tampa Bay’s bid for a three-peat. Is it Lightning fatigue with fans and media? Or is it the idea that the salary cap keeps taking players away from them year after year that creates the expectation that they will start sliding down?
Whatever the case, there’s been so little chatter about the Bolts this season. But I mean, they’re not going anywhere. They’ve absolutely got a shot at a fourth straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
“Everybody’s looking for something new, right? For somebody new to win or somebody new to come along,” Cooper said. “But what’s wrong with the team that wants to sit there and maybe throw (the word) ‘dynasty’ around? That’s what we’re looking at.”
In the salary cap era, they’re the closest thing to a dynasty right now. Four Stanley Cup Finals in eight years, two Cup wins, six conference finals in eight seasons — and just consistent contending for nearly a decade.
“That’s hard to do,” continued Cooper. “You can make that run to the top, but to be able to stay there, what those guys have done has been remarkable.
“Now, it’s easy for fans or the media to sleep on it and say, ‘It’s just the Lightning again,’ I suppose. But that’s not how we feel. We get a lot of satisfaction out of plowing through people and getting to the top and staying there. Because it’s a hard thing to do. And you never know when it’s going to be gone. So cherish it when you’re here. And when you have the chance to stay there, make sure you do.”
Notice how Cooper talks about what “those guys” have done. He wants his players to get full credit for what the past several years have produced. Let’s not kid ourselves, though: Cooper is one of the best coaches, if not the best coach, in the NHL. He’s just as important a part of what has transpired.
But what’s also evident with this Lightning team is that no one is living in the past. There’s a hunger in that dressing room that equals some teams that haven’t won a thing.
Tampa Bay isn’t ready to turn the page and pass the baton over to the Maple Leafs or anyone else.
Despite losing players year after year because of the salary cap, the Bolts find a way to stay near the top.
“Listen, we are definitely a different team than we’ve been in the past,” Stamkos said. “But that’s no excuse to throw in the towel. Guys have stepped up. We’ve had guys who have come in and played really well given the opportunity to elevate their game. And we have the goaltending that we know we have here.”
Another milestone night for #tblightning captain Steven Stamkos, who picked up his 1,000th career point. Already got 500th assist this year and – soon – goal No. 500. ICYMI on his path to a complete player and how he “proved a lot of people wrong.” https://t.co/nsba8LJgjf
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithNHL) December 2, 2022
And no doubt Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois will soon announce to the world that he has no cap room and doubts he will be active before the trade deadline — and then go out and add an important piece or two. It’s what he does.
“Our management does an amazing job of navigating what little wiggle room there is in the cap to improve our team,” said Stamkos. “As players, that’s all you can ask for from management.
“Julien’s done a great job. It’s on us as players to put ourselves in a position to go do that, and you never know. But we believe we’re still one of the top teams in the league.”
The path in the Atlantic, once again, will be daunting. The first-place Bruins and second-place Leafs look legit. The Lightning had to go seven games with the Leafs in the opening round last spring, winning Game 7 here in Toronto.
Bruins, Leafs and Bolts. What a three-team battle it’s shaping up to be, come springtime. And let’s see if the Panthers can get back into things.
“Obviously Boston just took off right from the beginning of the year. They’ve been on a roll,” Lightning center Anthony Cirelli said. “The Leafs, too. They’ve been ahead of us. We’re in a tough division. There’s a lot of teams creeping up, so you have to keep pace or even better. But you just have to get in, right?”
That’s life in the Atlantic, where Florida won the Presidents’ Trophy last season. It’s a wicked division.
“I mean, it’s been that way since that division was created,” Stamkos said. “I remember standing out in that hallway talking about how Boston was playing Toronto every year in the first round and it was two top-five, or two top-10 teams meeting in the first round. No different last year, too (with Tampa Bay-Toronto). That’s the beauty of our sport. Sometimes it’s just matchups in the playoffs, right? Sometimes you match up better against some teams than other teams.
“We could have been sitting there last year, gone in the first round in Game 7, and Toronto could have gone to the Cup final. I mean, that’s the reality of the sport.”
Steven, don’t do that to Leaf fans, man.
His point is, the parity is real. But that’s playoff experience.
“We know we have a group that if we continue to play well into the playoffs, we do have a lot of experience we can sit back and rely on in those moments,” Stamkos added.
What’s evident, too, is that despite back-to-back Cup wins in 2020 and 2021 and the exhilaration that came with that, the low that also came with losing to the Avs last June still stings this Lightning team.
Which has created a new hunger.
“When you get there, you want to win so bad,” veteran blueliner Victor Hedman said Monday. “We played against an unbelievable team in Colorado. But for us, at the end of the day — I look at it for me: I’m 32, we’ve got this unbelievable team, and we can’t let this opportunity go by.”
Can’t let this opportunity go by. Think about that statement for a moment. From a guy who’s been with this current Lightning core from Day 1. The fact that Hedman looks at things that way, not wanting to let the opportunity at hand go by, I mean, there are teams in the NHL trying to put two playoff wins together, let alone what Tampa has already done.
Beyond the skills, the skating ability, the statistics, what separates Victor Hedman has been his consistency.@JoeSmithNHL and @domluszczyszyn have more on the best defenseman of the post-Nicklas Lidstrom era.
— The Athletic NHL (@TheAthleticNHL) December 6, 2022
But that’s what makes great teams great. The will to sacrifice and pay the price. The hunger to win. You don’t really understand it all until you’ve been at the top.
“Just going through what we’ve gone through, winning those two (Cups), the feeling that you get; you want to keep on being there,” echoed Cirelli. “This group is really motivated, especially with the way it ended last year. We’re motivated and hungry to get back there. We know it’s a long road, a lot of regular-season hockey left. We just have to keep building our game.”
Dynasty? I’ve always found that players don’t think about those things until they’re long retired.
“It’s almost one of the things that you know is there and other people are talking about it and you don’t really bring it up in the room,” Stamkos said. “Until you’re right there. Being in the final last year for the third straight year, there was some chatter in the media. We got asked before the series against Colorado, ‘If you guys win this, then that word is definitely appropriate.’ You think about it a little bit, but like you said, when you’re living in the moment, it’s tough to look at that.”
“We certainly believe that we can go on more runs with this group,” Stamkos added. “I said it after we lost in Game 6 last year: Who says we’re done with this core?”
(Top photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)