"The season is over."
"Lottery draft, here we come."
I know that’s how some members of the Tampa Bay Lightning fan base are feeling. Based on statistics and strength of the rest of the games on the schedule, they’re not wrong. It’s been a rough year. In a season where Tampa was the odds on favorite to win the Stanley Cup, they are now sitting three points out of the Wild Card spot with 18 games left in the season. Even after going on a 6-2-2 run over the past 10 games, it doesn’t feel like the Bolts can close the gap. With Ben Bishop, Brian Boyle, and Valtteri Filppula traded as well as Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan injured, most Lightning fans don’t believe they can make up the ground. I believe we can. This is a team that has overcome every obstacle over the last three seasons.
2014-2015: Stanley Cup Finals Appearance
Tampa played from behind during most of the first round of the 2014-15 playoffs against the Detroit Red Wings. After every game that Detroit would win, the Bolts would respond and tie the series the next game. It was a recurring theme until Tampa won Game 6 and Game 7 to advance to the second round. Game 4 of that series is a game that I am sure will be known as one of the best comebacks in the history of the franchise.
The Red Wings were up 2-0 and were dominating play with less than six minutes left in the game when Tyler Johnson finally put the Bolts on the board. About a minute and a half later, Johnson sets up Ondrej Palat for the tying goal that sends them to overtime. In a game that would have put Tampa down 3-1 in the series, the Lightning won off of a goal from Tyler Johnson two and a half minutes into the overtime. They shouldn’t have won that game, but they fought.
Fast forward to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Lightning were up 3-2 in the series against the New York Rangers going into Game 6 at home. They took a massive 7-3 loss and had to go back to Madison Square Garden to play the illustrious Game 7 against Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers.
Lundqvist was a perfect 6-0 in Game 7s. New York was 15-3 in elimination games since the 2011-12 season. The Rangers were favored to win the game by the grand majority of experts in the media. In that hard fought game, Tampa shut out New York 2-0 off of two even strength goals from Killorn and Palat. They shouldn’t have won that game and that series, but they fought.
2015-2016: Eastern Conference Finals Appearance
At the end of March, Anton Stralman suffered a fractured leg that would keep him out of action until Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Less than a week later, Steven Stamkos was diagnosed with a blood clot requiring surgery and blood thinners that would sideline the captain until Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. While Tampa dominated their way through the first two rounds against the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Islanders without their captain and second best defenceman, they found themselves in another tough spot after Ben Bishop was hurt during Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins would go on to win the series and the Stanley Cup, but not before battling through a hard fought seven game series against the Lightning. Without their star goaltender, without their sharpshooting captain, and with a top defenseman just returning from a fractured leg, Pittsburgh seemed to be playing a team without any meat on its bones to get it done. With a 21 year old goaltender that many didn’t think was ready to take over between the pipes, the Lightning pushed the Penguins to a Game 7 after leading the series twice. They shouldn’t have given Pittsburgh a run for their money, but they fought.
2016-2017: One Game At A Time
This brings me to this season. Every player on this Lightning team has missed at least one game due to injury or illness. Through all of that, somehow the team is still on the brink of making the playoffs. A lot of people feel that it is out of reach without players like Bishop, Boyle, and Stamkos - and they may be right. The resilience of the Bolts gives me plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic that Tampa will fight back and find a way to beat the odds to make the playoffs because, as we have all seen, they always seem to find a way to do it. I am sure that is part of the reason that people love this team, even if they doubt the Bolts’ ability to make the playoffs.
They always play better with their backs against the wall. With 15 of the last 19 games being against playoff teams; missing players like Stamkos, Bishop, and Boyle; and with a 22 year old goalie who has less than 100 career starts, this team couldn’t be closer to the wall if they tried. I just hope that I can end this story with "but they fought."