What is a legacy? Is it establishing your franchise as one of the greatest teams of the salary cap era? Is it constantly being touted as a contender even in years your team isn’t in their best form? Is it staving off the inevitable roller coaster of premier teams in the NHL? Is it when your team is looked back on, and the thought is, “That was a stupidly good team; I can’t believe what they did?” Or, “That was an outstanding team; I can’t believe they didn’t win anything?”
How do we look back on some of the great teams of the past—even the recent past? In the strict perspective of winning championships, the Chicago Blackhawks are the gold standard when it comes to legacy during the salary cap era (as an organization, their ineptitude to do the morally right thing will mar the franchise for a very long time). Pittsburgh would be the following organization in line, and after that, there’d be the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Los Angeles Kings.
Tampa Bay is already a part of that pantheon of greatness; however, the desire to be the pinnacle of that pantheon is tantalizing, salivating, and near suffocating. The fan base knows Tampa Bay likely won’t win a third consecutive Stanley Cup, a feat no team has accomplished since the 1980s New York Islanders, but there is an expectation of being in the conversation to make teams who haven’t won anything scratch and claw their way to relevancy. That is the weight Tampa Bay carries this postseason; coupled with a good but not great roster magnifies losses this time of year.
That’s why Tuesday night’s inexcusable Game Five loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs gnaws at a Lightning fan’s mind. Two goals within the opening six minutes—silencing the crowd at Scotiabank Arena, showcasing what a champion does to an opponent that has yet to show a killer instinct. This should have been a death knell for Toronto. The Lightning should have locked them down as they often did the past two postseasons. Instead, the Lightning got sloppy, careless, and forgot their style of championship hockey.
“It’s a 60-minute game, right?” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said after the game. “In order to win at this time of the year, you have to play a full game. Unfortunately, we didn’t. We played a hell of a 15 minutes for the first period, and just couldn’t replicate the rest of the game.”
Since this core group of players started the Lightning’s ascension in 2014, they have made five Eastern Conference Finals (winning three of them), three Stanley Cup Finals (winning two of them), missed the playoffs once (2017’s quagmire of a season), and saw two first-round defeats (2014 to Montreal, and 2019 to Columbus). More times than not, this core finds a way and makes their opposition’s lives miserable. That killer instinct was missing in Game Five. A team as experienced as this one should know how to play a full 60-minutes given its track record.
“This game was there for the taking for us,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We just let it slip through our fingers. That’s on us.”
Slipping through their fingers is an oversimplification—Tampa Bay gifted Toronto momentum with inexcusable execution and decision making. John Tavares, who has been a ghost for most of the series, gave the Maple Leafs life on a power-play that should have never happened. The man advantage came from the Lightning committing a second too many men infraction. One too many men penalty is bad enough, but two happening is inexcusable and paved the way for the Maple Leafs to gain momentum—which they never relinquished for the remainder of the game.
Andrei Vasilevskiy did everything within his power to keep the Leafs at bay, and for a while, it looked as though he would carry Tampa Bay to a 3-2 series lead. Then the third-period mistakes piled up, and The Big Cat was left on an island. Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, and Auston Matthews all scored in the third period thanks to blown coverages or unneeded mistakes from the Lightning.
Tampa Bay did tie the game with a Ryan McDonagh goal before Matthews's eventual game-winner, but the mistakes kept piling up, and it bit them in the worst way possible.
For as much deserved flak as the Leafs get for failing to win a playoff round since 2004 (with this core of Leafs players going 0-for-5), they’re a prideful group that is clearly tired of being a postseason laughingstock and wants to change their narrative. Being the “little brother” for so long eventually leads to a comeuppance, and this Toronto team is too talented to be taken lightly. Gifting a group as hungry as they are this kind of momentum could be the lift they need to close the series in Tampa.
That’s where the Lightning has to step up, again, to even the series and make it a do-or-die Game Seven. This marks only the second time since the 2020 postseason the Lightning have faced elimination, and the first time it came before a Game Seven. Tampa Bay deserves every ounce of trust that they can force a final series-ending game in Toronto this weekend, but they’ll have to avoid the needless mistakes that gifted a golden opportunity to their opponent.