Folks, this isn't supposed to happen—not in today's NHL. Teams aren't supposed to make consecutive Stanley Cup finals, not with the restrictions the salary cap imposes, the constant roster shuffling, and the normal aging of players.
If anything, the fact that only three teams have made consecutive Cup final appearances in the salary cap era (Pittsburgh x2, Detroit, and Tampa Bay) reinforces this notion. Yet, here Tampa Bay is, standing atop a gauntlet of opponents in the Eastern Conference, appearing in their third consecutive Stanley Cup final, and fourth in eight years.
Do not take this for granted.
We're living in the greatest era of Lightning history and Tampa sports history. No team in this city has ever been this good, for this long, and this resilient. These players and this organization are the models for the rest of the league. They set the standard and have continually exceeded it during this prolonged stretch of excellence. There have been some growing pains and struggles, but it's culminated at this moment in Lightning history. On the precipice of hockey immortality, against a juggernaut opponent, with a chance to cement themselves as the greatest of an era, this is the moment the franchise and these players have waited for.
Underdogs to the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs in round one? Dispatched in a grueling seven-game series. Underdogs to the Presidents' Trophy-winning Florida Panthers? Swept under the rug. Faced with a resilient New York Rangers team with a stellar goaltender? Spotted them a 2-0 series lead before winning four straight. This Lightning team doesn't know the meaning of quit and staunchly believes in their ability to win any kind of game.
"I think it's just belief in ourselves and belief in the work you put in," captain Steven Stamkos said. "We trust every guy that goes over those boards to do his job. Whether you score a goal or not, it's the little things you do. It's the defending. It's the blocked shots. It's the sacrifice. It's going out and playing as hard as you can for the guy that sits beside you in the locker room. That's why this group is so special."
Stamkos is already a Lightning legend, but his performance against the Rangers in Game Six magnifies it more.
An absolute laser of a shot from the top of the circles, in stride, and with near-perfect technique—that's a Steven Stamkos special.
However, even more impressive was how he, and the Lightning, responded to the Rangers tying it up late in the third period.
There's no worry, no stress, no 'not big enough for the moment' going on for Tampa Bay. Just simple execution and outplaying your opponent. Watch the entire sequence; look how scrambled the Rangers are throughout and how easily the Lightning recovers a dump-in attempt, transitions the puck up the ice, and punishes New York for even attempting to make the game appear close. That's what champions do; they vivisect an opponent's will, stamping out any semblance of hope and reminding the challenger what it takes to be a champion.
That's who the Lightning are now, seasoned champions, with a resolve and patience that no team has beaten in years. Now, standing in the way of a historic three-peat is their most formidable challenge yet, the Colorado Avalanche.
The Avalanche has exorcised many of their past playoff failures en route to stomping the Western Conference these playoffs. They've lost two games all postseason—TWO. That's imposing no matter which way you look at it. With Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar leading the way, and a bevy of talent strewn throughout the lineup, the Lightning will have their hands full trying to slow down this unstoppable force. However, if any team can find a way, it's the immovable object that is Tampa Bay.
It's a classic matchup pitting an overwhelming offense against a team-oriented defense.
"We don't have to win by six goals or whatever it may be," said Alex Killorn. "We want to defend first, and when you defend, you end up getting a lot of scoring chances out of it."
That's been the Lightning way through two championships. Sure, they can score a bunch of goals, but the team's mentality shift after the 2019 postseason signified the championship-style that has become a hallmark for the team. What makes this run even more impressive is they've done it with significant roster turnover, especially in the middle of the lineup.
Gone are identity players such as Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow, and Blake Coleman, an entire line that dominated opponents in 2020 and 2021. Gone are valuable players, Kevin Shattenkirk (2020), Mathieu Joseph (2021), and Braydon Coburn (2020). They've been replaced with players like Ross Colton (2021 and 2022), Nick Paul (2022), and Brandon Hagel (2022). Tampa Bay isn't as deep as it used to be, but the core of this team is still stronger than just about any other in the league. That core augments new additions, and they don't miss a beat.
I've been critical of the Lightning this season—very critical. Their inconsistency during the regular season posed warning signs for the postseason, especially with the teams they would likely have to go through. And those warning signs were blatantly apparent during the first four games against Toronto and the first two games against New York. The Lightning pulled through in those series, thanks to their championship pedigree and stalwart goaltender, but laying eggs against Colorado could be too much to overcome.
That said, this team has earned the benefit of the doubt. They're champions, arguably the greatest champions of their era, and want to erase the "arguably" with a 12th consecutive series win. I can't wait to see them battle like hell to make it a reality.