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Morning After Thoughts: Legacy solidified

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This core of players will live on in Lightning history, forever.

2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images

Legacy.

That is what we witnessed as the Tampa Bay Lightning dispatched the Montreal Canadiens in five games to hoist back-to-back Stanley Cups.

For a team that suffered, arguably, the most embarrassing playoff exit in modern NHL history in 2019, this victory is a culmination of everything these players, coaches, and staff members have strived toward. Three Cup Final appearances and two championships in seven years are remarkable accomplishments—no matter what any detractors say, this team is special.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who played less than three minutes in last year’s championship run, summed it up quite well. “This group, no matter what happens from here on out, you deserve to go down in history,” Stamkos said. “And that’s pretty f-----g special.”

If the 2020 Stanley Cup Championship was Tampa Bay redeeming itself, 2021 saw them solidify their legacy. The list of accomplishments and accolades is astounding.

Tampa Bay’s killer instinct in possible elimination games over the past two seasons is a marvel to observe. They faced actual elimination only once in that timespan, Game 7 against the New York Islanders in this year’s semi-final. When they closed out the series, they stifled the opposition. No one was more important in those games than Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Vasilevskiy’s play anchored the Lightning in both championship runs, and even though Nikita Kucherov’s run was legendary in its own right, there are no quarrels about the Conn Smythe.

Overtime was something I always feared this postseason. Historically, the Lightning is the best playoff overtime team in NHL history by win percentage, but this season they went 0-4 in extra time. It juxtaposes their overtime record from 2020, but overall it mattered little when they only dropped seven games all postseason.

What Kucherov has done over these two postseasons should not be understated. He’s the most important offensive weapon the Lightning has, and he’s one of three players (alongside Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux) to score 30 points in consecutive postseasons. Kucherov is an all-timer and the best to ever wear a Lightning sweater. It’s astonishing that he did this without playing in the regular season and didn’t miss a beat.

“I don’t know how anyone can miss the entire regular season; come back and do what he did,” said Blake Coleman. “He deserves all the credit.”

Resiliency and dominance, that’s what these back-to-back championship runs reveal about the Lightning.

“I think it’s just the calm inside the room,” said David Savard. “I think there’s never, ever some panic. I think no matter what happens, we stay focused.”

Going one postseason without losing back-to-back games is one thing, but to do so over two playoff runs is another marvel in and of itself. Yet, here Tampa Bay is, touting a dominant performance after a loss again. I’ve seen many fans lament the Lightning failing to “close out the series” over the past two years, but that mindset is haunted by the mistakes of the past. This Lightning team isn’t the same as the one that lost to Columbus in 2019, Washington in 2018, Pittsburgh in 2016, or Chicago in 2015—they’ve proven that, twice, and it’s time to give this team the respect they deserve.

As much as naysayers will find any excuse to put an asterisk on Tampa Bay’s consecutive championships, it ignores how difficult these past two seasons have been for every team. The fact that the Lightning came out on top reinforces the culture they’ve built and the resiliency they embody. Not even a pandemic wreaking havoc was going to stop this team from reaching the summit—twice.

The Lightning is the standard every team strives for—they might not have the same number of championships as the Blackhawks of the 2010s or the Sidney Crosby era Penguins, but they’re the standard in how to build a team by drafting, developing, signing good free agents, and honing in on key trades.

More than just drafting Stamkos and Victor Hedman at the top of the draft, Tampa Bay found key contributors in nearly every draft round and even outside of it. Vasilevskiy (late 1st round), Kucherov (2nd round), Brayden Point (3rd round), Anthony Cirelli (3rd round), Alex Killorn (3rd round), Mathieu Joseph (4th round), Ross Colton (4th round), Ondrej Palat (7th round), Tyler Johnson (undrafted), and Yanni Gourde (undrafted).

Free-agent signings like Pat Maroon, Kevin Shattenkirk (last year), Zach Bogosian (last year), and Luke Schenn provided quality depth at a cheap cost. Further, they reinforced the idea of not overspending on free agency.

They supplemented the other slots with key trades filling in the gaps; Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, and Jan Rutta. One could argue that four of these trades could be the best in Lightning history. Personally, I feel it’s between McDonagh and Sergachev’s trades that were the most influential, but the Cernak and Coleman trades also deserve positive attention.

It’s fitting then that the two of the three players who secured the Cup-clinching goal had never even made it this far in the postseason.

Let’s break down the Cup-clinching goal, shall we?

One Goal

First, Eric Staal makes a soft play on the puck in a board battle where McDonagh recovers the dump attempt. McDonagh laterally shifts himself across the blueline to draw Montreal towards him. David Savard wisely pinches into the offensive zone since no Canadiens player even realizes he’s on the ice. Meanwhile, Colton takes a few crossovers to get around Joel Edmundson and push toward the front of the net. Edmundson attempts a cross-check, but Colton turns into an open pivot to negate it and proceeds to box Edmundson out—leaving all of the leverage in Colton’s favor. Savard reads the play and sends a perfect pass directly into Colton’s reach, and the rest is history.

For as critical as I’ve been of Savard during his Lightning tenure, he finally found his footing at the end of the Florida series, and he’s been rock solid ever since. As for Colton, he’s the embodiment of the Lightning development model. He’s quick, smart, has a good shot, and doesn’t quit on plays. This sequence is something Lightning coaches drill into the players; it covers skating, positioning, and understanding how a team will try to defend you. That is why the Lightning repeatedly churns out players from the AHL; they have a specific type of player they desire, and they mold them into players that can compete at the NHL level through coaching and developing the right skills to succeed.

This isn’t just the best Lightning team the franchise has ever iced; it’s the best sports team the city of Tampa has ever seen. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can enter the conversation if they repeat as NFL champions in the upcoming NFL season. Still, it’s the Lightning with the most championships in the city, the first to win multiple championships, and the first to win back-to-back championships. The Lightning has set the bar, and it’s up to the Bucs, Rays, and Rowdies to meet it (and those teams might do it too).

The Lightning will be etched in history. They join an exclusive club over the past decade; Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh—those are the only teams with multiple championships in that time span. Now, the Lightning makes that group a little larger and solidifies themselves as special. They’re not one and done, not eternal underachievers, not lucky to be there; they’re the Tampa Bay Lightning.

They are the best team in the NHL for the second straight year, and they don’t give a damn what anyone has to say about it.