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One thing the NHL refuses to turn down is an opportunity to boast about its competitive balance. It's one thing the front office believes in its bones that it has on other major sports leagues — other major sports leagues that remain two or three steps ahead, decidedly, in terms of branding, accessibility, and appeal. But the NHL loves it some of its perceived strength and will harp on it to the death, continuing to peddle the idea that a more sizeable share of its teams, at any moment's notice, can win a championship.
But while equal opportunity is advertised, in reality there's a clear standard of excellence required to win — one that's usually cultivated, nurtured, and established over several years. At the beginning of the decade two teams — the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings — duelled over the Stanley Cup across a six-season stretch. After that, the Pittsburgh Penguins achieved their optimum in the Sidney Crosby era, winning hockey's 34.5-pound prize in consecutive seasons.
Since that point, and even tracing back to the previous monopolies held by Chicago, L.A., and Pittsburgh, it has been about the Tampa Bay Lightning establishing, and now acting on, their own excellence.
On Wednesday night, the Lightning entered the pantheon of truly outstanding and accomplished teams in the NHL's salary cap era with a second consecutive Stanley Cup victory, completing a gentleman's championship sweep in Game 5 with a 1-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens — or precisely the sort of team that proves the NHL both right and wrong about its assertion that no league has a deeper catalogue of contenders from season to season.
That's because on one hand, Montreal finished the regular season as the 18th-best team in the NHL and embarked on a reasonably dominant run to the Stanley Cup Final, anyway. However, once the Canadiens reached the championship series, and finally encountered an established entity, and a team worth remembering decades down the line, it was about as non-competitive as a final series should ever be.
As involved as many teams can be in the NHL's idyllic, equitable conditions, the 2021 Stanley Cup Final is a reminder that these moments, or the glory, is reserved for a certain type of team.
It's reserved for a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It takes more than a flash in the pan. It takes success and failure, and teachings from each. It takes persistence. It takes meticulous planning. It takes filling very specific needs. It takes depth. It takes risks. It might take a little circumvention — or at least a perfectly-timed surgery to keep a team in tact.
More than anything else, though, it takes time.
That fleeting consideration in all our lives is especially pertinent to the Lightning. There isn't another team that's invested more time. It's been over a decade since the two foundational elements for the franchise and stars with which the team is built around — Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman — were drafted first and second overall, respectively.
The franchise has also given its incredibly impressive head coach, Jon Cooper, ample time, taking a measured approach to unpacking failure, decompressing with a level head, and showing the appropriate amount of patience to allow him to become the longest-tenured coach in a league and last in a profession where the average shelf life seems to be two or three seasons, max.
Still, it seemed plausible that too much time had elapsed, or that time was beginning to wear thin on both Stamkos, Hedman, and the Lightning head coach, as the challenges of the salary cap threatened to compromise what had been built.
There was also the times, or the possibility that the COVID-19 pandemic would eliminate the Lightning's ability to apply all it had learned and compete for the Stanley Cup with its best roster to date.
Thankfully, the NHL made time for that.
In a way last summer and inside the bubble, it felt like the Lightning were fortunate to have salvaged the one title, to have avoided having all the experience earned, and wonderful things done, being lost in vain due to a variety of circumstances. Still, the manner in which they won wasn't exactly ideal. Families were unable to attend and savour the moment due to the secure nature of the setting in which they won. Stamkos being unfit to perform beyond a handful of shifts was something that didn't sit right, either.
Nevertheless, it was a title the franchise richly deserved and would forever eliminate the idea that the Lightning wasted their potential. If that was it, that was OK. The Lightning were supposed to be entering cap hell — not because they signed bad contracts, but because they simply had too many good players. The realities of a pandemic-forced flat cap are what they are.
But having avoided that, and now repeating as champions without once losing consecutive games and only facing elimination once, the narrative changes completely when discussing legacy. No longer the team that eked out a championship before an imminent cap-related deconstruction, the Lightning have firmly entered into the fraternity of best teams assembled in this current era of on-ice competition. Maybe the best.
Again, the success can be traced back six seasons, and to the loss to Chicago in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, in what was something of a passing of a torch. The Lightning have 70 postseason wins since they put their foot in the door initially, which is far and away the most over that same time period. But it's what the Lightning have accomplished in these last three seasons, specifically, with the pieces in place for this fleeting moment (and before the inevitability of change), that is really beyond comparison.
Of course, they are only the second team to repeat as champions in the salary cap era, and the third team in the last quarter century to successfully maintain its grip on the Stanley Cup. However, the story of this team is incomplete without discussing 2018-19, and a season that was both historical and humiliating, and which shaped a group that has reached its full potential now.
What was the defining moment for the franchise — a four-game series sweep in the first round to the Columbus Blue Jackets after one of the greatest regular seasons in history — now serves as the Eureka moment, or the perspective-building loss that led a brilliant team to its optimized state.
The Lightning's subsequent Stanley Cups should, in turn, influence how we categorize and look back on a regular season like few have ever seen. Tampa Bay's record-tying 62 wins was a stunning achievement, and perhaps more impressive, and certainly far less common, than a single Stanley Cup victory — no matter the team. It's possible franchises stay chasing that 62-win benchmark forever, as long as the league office continues to pride itself on the concept of parity.
Fulfilling its potential, we can focus on Tampa's incredible regular season of three years ago, not the end result (or some regrettable company account tweets). Those 62 wins are now part of one of the greatest and most accomplished single stretches from a team in hockey history, while the disastrous conclusion to the season is merely a footnote. Perhaps they don't become what they are now without it.
Winning can cure all (even if screenshots last forever).
Over time, the Lightning have proven themselves to be that special sort of team — one of the few worthy of authoring a lasting regular season achievement, one that's twice lifted the trophy that so many are supposedly in equal contention for; one that rewrote its own history.
These last three seasons have been the stuff of legends. It's taken the excellence of players and coaches. It's taken success and failure. It's taken persistence. It's taken trust and dedication. It's taken adaptation. It's required the rules to be stretched just enough.
Now, it will last the test of time.
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