The implementation of the salary cap after the 2003-2004 season was meant to increase parity, give more teams a chance to win the Stanley Cup, and even the playing field for teams that aren't money printing machines regardless of the on-ice product. This system was made so teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Los Angeles Kings, and the Anaheim Ducks (to a lesser extent, the decade-plus run of the San Jose Sharks, who were dominant but could never win it all) could find success once in a while. This is what makes Tampa Bay's accomplishments even more stunning.
Six Eastern Conference Final appearances in eight years, more than any other team has in the entire Salary Cap Era. Three Conference Final appearances in a row, a feat only matched by the Chicago Blackhawks (2013-15), Detroit Red Wings (2007-09), and Los Angeles Kings (2012-14) in the Salary Cap Era. Three trips to the Stanley Cup Final. Back-to-back championships. A bevy of awards, both regular and postseason. And most impressively, ten consecutive playoff series wins—the most in the salary cap era and the most since the dynastic New York Islanders from 1980-1984 (19 straight—a record I highly doubt will ever be broken). We're witnessing history before our eyes.
"It's remarkable; it's mind-boggling," said Jon Cooper. "But as Pat Maroon says to me, 'I've won 14,' and for some reason, I don't think we're going to catch him."
As it stands, the Chicago Blackhawks are the modern NHL's 'dynasty,' a run that saw them win three championships in six years—which in and of itself is an outstanding achievement. If the Lightning pull off the improbable and win a third consecutive championship, there won't be a debate on who the dynastic team is—it'll undoubtedly be the Lightning. This continued stretch of deep playoff runs and championships feels unprecedented in the salary cap era. For crying out loud, this is their SIXTH conference final in eight years—something I feel many are not fully understanding in context to the overplayed narrative of the 2019 sweep to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
This Lightning franchise was already a proven playoff team before that series (three conference finals in the past five years at that juncture—with a Stanley Cup Final appearance), and while it's easy to place a narrative on the team given their performance after the sweep it misses the overarching story of this franchise—they've been a top contending team well before that series, and have only elevated themselves since. They've gone from a contending team that dealt with massive heartbreaks (Game Six against Chicago in 2015 (Stanley Cup Final), Game 7 against Pittsburgh in 2016 (Eastern Conference Final), Game 7 against Washington in 2018 (Eastern Conference Final)) to sheer embarrassment in 2019 to utter dominance when the stakes are the highest.
Too often, playoff narratives are perceived to be linear. Our team made the second round this year, which means we'll be better next year and make the conference final or the cup! It's a naïve hindsight, one saddled with the misunderstanding of how the sport of hockey operates—it's susceptible to an extensive range of variance; a bad bounce here, an unfortunate decision there, a hot goalie on a worse team carries a series, a missed call flips a game, etc. So great teams can lose more often than expected because of those largely uncontrollable variables (see San Jose Sharks from 2010-2019).
This is why you see teams with strong cores want to keep them together as long as possible, to take as many shots at a championship as they can—because management teams know all it takes is one to make it all worth it, which is what elevates what the Lightning is doing to another level. They already have a legacy in the NHL, they are already one of the three most incredible teams of the salary cap era, and they will be remembered as such.
Steven Stamkos said after the Game Four win, “The beauty of the group is that we’re not satisfied. We want 12 straight.”
They recognize that the legacy they’ve already created isn’t enough. They want their legacy to be historic so that no other team can match, which is why they've somehow found ways to win games they have no business winning, why they don't seem flustered when they're outshot 18-3 in a period, or routed in an opening game of a series. Why they've found ways to defy the odds and make a mockery of nearly every statistical model and defeat two teams considered to be far superior to them. What we're witnessing isn't the norm, folks. Whether or not they complete the three-peat, what we're witnessing is special.
Win or lose, moving forward, we're witnessing something truly magnificent, and it has the potential to be something even more. And for a city like Tampa, once marred with an ugly history of consistent sports failures, it's an era we will likely never see again once their run ends. So, embrace this. Spill your hearts out for this team. Make sure they know they're loved and will forever be loved by this town and this area.