[...] Now I have come again
To the land of the fair
And the strong, and the wise
Brothers and sisters of the pale forest,
Children of night
Who among you will run with the hunt?
Now night arrives with her purple legion
Retire now to your tents and to your dreams
Tomorrow we enter the town of my birth
I want to be ready
-- Taken from Celebration of the Lizard, by Jim Morrison / The Doors
Eighty-two games were played, with the final results of the 2015-16 Tampa Bay Lightning season being 46-31-5. That benchmark, the results that led to a 2nd place finish in the NHL's Atlantic Division and individual records of drama, frustration, benchmarks, thrills and achievement are in the history books. As I like to say so often: Over. Done with. Moot. It happened. Sweep it aside because the journey forward is not swayed in much of a figurative sense... though it's hard to dismiss the physical element of it all.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, lacking the services of Captain Steven Stamkos and top defender in Anton Stralman (along with lingering hurts and limitations to other players) move forward into the Second Season of the NHL. The playoffs begin tomorrow evening with one universal goal for the 16 remaining participants: The chalice of Lord Stanley. That engraved award graduates from champion to champion, unlike the awards of other North American pro leagues that are minted fresh for each winner. Whoever wins the playoffs will be embracing the same Stanley Cup held by the likes of Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Patrick Roy and the members of the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning.
Yet the Cup is still so, so far away for every contending team... From the grandly accomplished Washington Capitals (who had the best record in the NHL this season) to the Minnesota Wild (who slinked in to the final wild card spot in the Western Conference having all of 87 points on the season - 9 below the Eastern Conference's final wild card team, the Philadelphia Flyers). The Cup is technically in striking distance and yet it's also potentially more than 1/3rd of a season away in games played (28 games if all four necessary playoff series go 7 games each).
Tomorrow, we start over. It's a field that this Lightning team has been participating in for three consecutive seasons. The actually players involved have shifted and changed with thanks to transactions as well as injuries and limitations. What remains static is the franchise, the general oversight of the team by GM Steve Yzerman and leadership by head coach Jon Cooper. This team has seen four playoff berths since Yzerman took over as GM, while the club has had three consecutive years of contention with Cooper calling the shots.
One other aspect that must be acknowledged going into this is the "Cup or Bust" banter from last September and October. Now that you've seen what Tampa Bay is capable of what and where the team is limited, that goal of all-or-nothing, champion-or-failure, title-or-garbage; it all comes off as an outlandish benchmark. Professional sport seasons aren't built like that - where you have to accomplish it all or be sullied by your own media and fans. You, the fan reading this, may not be happy if the Bolts drop the opening round, or Atlantic Division title round, or Eastern Conference Finals, or Stanley Cup Finals... But like any pro season, it's a trial by fire just to get to the playoffs. The Lightning has gotten through that gauntlet.
It won't be a bust if the team doesn't win it all, though. You know this by way of the challenges or hurts that took place on the road through this season. You know this. You may not be pleased with the failings and wrinkles but you also know life happens. It's not all set in stone and the exact accomplishments of last year are not likely to be repeated word-for-word, point-for-point again the following year.
Whatever you're expecting, don't. Don't write off the Lightning in the opening round or later. Let it happen as it will. That also means don't be married to the success of Tampa Bay, expecting a Stanley Cup Champion Parade on Bayshore Boulevard and through the Channel District. Let it happen as it will, pass or fail, coming-up-short or overcoming-to-succeed.
Just remember, there's that chance June will get here and if the chips fall just the right way, the battles won by just the proper means, and if God wills it, Commissioner Gary Bettman may declare over the Public Address system for Captain Steven Stamkos (or Assistant Captain Ryan Callahan ) to come get his Stanley Cup.