No captain and MVP candidate (when healthy) in Steven Stamkos for the entire playoffs so far? No problem.
A brutal high stick from Zdeno Chara sidelines Nikita Kucherov for most of a series-clinching game? Not even a sweat.
Well, maybe a bit of a sweat. It did take double overtime in Game 5 to decide it, but the Tampa Bay Lightning advanced to the Eastern Conference Final with a 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins for their second-straight Gentlemen’s Sweep of the B’s in three years.
For Lightning fans, who have been a party to some of the most beautiful hockey ever played for more than half a decade, putting the ghosts of failures past one-by-one back in the closet is equal parts catharsis and relief. Their swashbuckling style fits the pirate-themed city they call home, and it has given them the second-most points in the NHL since 2015. Throw in a President’s Cup, a mere two total points away from two more, and a Stanley Cup Final appearance as well.
It has also caused unreasonable heartbreak. They entered the 2019 playoffs as the #1 team on earth, and statistically a peer of the best professional hockey teams ever assembled. Scoring 325 goals and conceding only 222,. they won 62 games and were 13-4 in overtime and shootouts. It helped that in 3-on-3 hockey having Stamkos, Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and shift after shift after shift of speed was basically a cheat code.
They won the President’s Cup by 21 points and with weeks to spare. They led 3-0 after 20 minutes of Game 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round of the playoffs, a mere formality according to the oddsmakers. A raucous Amalie Arena crowd gave them a standing ovation as their beloved Bolts left for intermission, the first of many blowouts to come on the way to the parade. To start the second period, Kucherov ripped a rocket that clanged off the crossbar, but no matter; it was clear who was going home with the game, the series, and likely the Stanley Cup.
And then Columbus scored four in a row, including three in the third period, and the Bolts were down 1-0. And somehow six days later a team that compared favorably to so many with their name on Lord Stanley... was on the golf course trying to pick up the pieces of the biggest collapses in the history of hockey, shinny, curling, or bandy. From the penthouse to a sweep. It remains totally unfathomable.
And it hurt. My God, did it hurt.
The city had organized watch parties, with permits issued for weeks to come as inflatable screens were set up in the waterside park that runs next to the Riverwalk that has revitalized the formerly sleepy downtown. 7th Avenue in Ybor City was the capital of the cigar industry at the turn of the 20th Century, and has become a waning nightlife district. But it was blocked off so thousands of descendants of those that listened to lectors read the news and novels of the day as they hand-rolled stogies could celebrate a team that has strangely, bizarrely, and unquestionably has unified a city from the middle of the same street.
And in four puffs of smoke, it all went away.
Though it might seem bizarre to those in more traditional hockey markets, the Lightning have sold out 234 consecutive games at an almost-20,000 seat arena in a city that has never seen snow outside of an ice cream truck. You won’t find a non-profit in town that hasn’t been touched by the club, and the $50,000 given away to a local charity at the second TV-timeout of every single game (playoffs included) has become a staple of community philanthropy. If your Little League team is having a fundraiser, just send a letter to 401 Channelside Drive and you’ll have a Ryan Callahan jersey or a Brayden Point stick to auction off in days.
Florida didn’t have any high school hockey before they arrived, but the Bolts created their own city league to grow the game. There’s street hockey everywhere, with 100,000 Tampa kids getting a stick and a puck from the team. The ownership of Jeff Vinik invested a mile wide and just as deep into the community. And it shows in the loyalty of those that back their Bolts. Tampa had hockey fans before Vinik’s arrival, many of those fondly remembering the 2004 Stanley Cup run.
But that was a niche of mostly transplants from the Northeast Corridor, and now the franchise is a bigger part of the culture of the city than ever. Which makes the failures that more painful.
The Bolts lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015 in the Stanley Cup Final with a core that’s still a part of the team. Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, and Cedric Paquette are still on the first three lines. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy even played four games in that playoff run while backing up Ben Bishop. And in the last five years they have played breathtaking hockey at times, showing talent that seems not of this earth.
If you love speed, skill and teamwork, they are can’t miss 82 nights a year. With that ability comes a dash of arrogance as well at times, and on the occasional back-to-back you can’t tell if the stamp they’re mailing it in with is from the USPS or Canada Post. But on the nights they have it, they are simply breathtaking. And every year since that 2015 Cup Final loss (except for 2017 in which everyone got hurt, from the first line to the ushers and beer concession salespeople), the question isn’t if the Bolts are the best team: It’s if they’ll execute in four straight series to claim the championship.
The title is one thing that Tampa craves more than no humidity in July. Without Stamkos, whose return timetable from injury is unknown, they’ll certainly have a tougher time getting the next eight wins than the eight already claimed. But so far they’ve beaten their nemesis from last year, and knocked off a very good Boston team in five games each.
But they’ve certainly been there before too.