If there is one undeniable truth for the Tampa Bay Lightning this season, they have the heart of a champion. A proven champion who doesn’t need another Stanley Cup to remind everyone how great they are, but a champion nonetheless. Thursday night’s electric 4-3 overtime win in Game Six to stave off elimination showcased the Lightning's resolve, heart, and determination. Now, we’re left with a do-or-die Game Seven on Saturday night. They haven’t been the better team for most of the first round, but they’re making the Toronto Maple Leafs sweat every second of this series.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There’s palpable anxiety among Lightning fandom. Throughout our franchise’s history, we’ve been lambasted with snarky remarks about being a southern team, laughed at for attendance problems during the franchise's lean years, and generally misrepresented by the media at large. Tampa Bay had to win back-to-back championships to garner the respect they should have received after winning in 2020. So, it’s understandable why many in the Lightning world want to make another run, stick a proverbial finger up to the establishment, and showcase why this city, this team, and this fanbase are the best in the league.
The thing all Lightning fans should do is sit back and simply enjoy how this team moves forward. This core group of players is the greatest in franchise history and one of the greatest in salary cap history (you can only argue two franchises are ahead of them). When it’s all said and done, history will be very kind to this era of the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, that doesn’t mean this team is dead, it doesn’t mean this team can’t compete, and it surely doesn’t mean this team can’t terrify its opponents with their never-say-die attitude. That is who the Tampa Bay Lightning are—champions, some of the greatest champions of this era, who will make you scratch and claw for every centimeter of ice.
“It’s do or die, for us anyways,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said after the game. “You just leave it all out there. We talk about sacrifice and doing the right things out there. It’s tough when your body’s going through a lot, especially in an elimination game where our backs are against the wall...It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win. It was what we needed to do.”
While the team was struggling to establish their identity and consistently win games during the season, they dubbed themselves the “Tampa Bay Find-A-Ways.” Fitting that with their backs against the wall, after blowing a second consecutive two-goal lead, falling behind after coughing up that lead, they manage to find a way to tie it, force overtime, and win it with an ugly scrappy goal that may come to define their postseason.
“This group has proven we don’t care how we get it done,” Stamkos said. “We just want to get it done.”
Mission accomplished—for one game.
The Lightning now face a tall task. Defeating the Maple Leafs on their home ice, a place they’ve only managed to win one game all series. They’ll also be facing a Leafs team desperate to uproot years of playoff failure. If there is anything this Toronto team has shown, they aren’t intimidated by the Lightning’s experience and never stop skating. They want to change their narrative, and they’re fighting tooth and nail to make it happen.
Remember, they came back from two two-goal deficits in back-to-back games and held the lead in Game Six before Nikita Kucherov tied the game and Brayden Point finished it. They’re the only team that has won a game in this series when they didn’t score first. They’ve carried play for most of the series and have made Andrei Vasilevskiy look normal during stretches of play.
What Tampa Bay has to do on Saturday is lay everything on the ice as they did in Game Six. If they’re going to lose, they better make Toronto earn every millimeter of that victory. Conversely, if the Lightning wins Game Seven, their legacy grows ever more undeniable, and they become one of the scariest teams in the second round. That’s what champions do even in defeat—they make their opponents hate every second of playing them.
It might seem like this is a win-lose situation for Tampa Bay, but this team has already won everything they could ever want over the past several years. Only two other franchises can confidently say they’re the best of this era and should be ahead of the Lightning. For the Lightning faithful, embrace the chaos, the fun, and the ride. Win or lose on Saturday, the second or third rounds, or even in the Final this season, you can be sure of one thing as a Lightning fan—they’re going to make every team they play sweat like maniacs and remind them all that to be a champion you have to show the heart of one.