The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the difficult and often times unenviable position the Washington Capitals used to find themselves in.
An objectively outstanding team that is loaded with stars and wins a ton of regular season (and playoff) games but never really gets taken seriously as a great team because they are still lacking the one piece of hardware that great teams are ultimately measured by — the Stanley Cup.
If you are thinking about things rationally this should be a great position to be in because it means you are one of the elite teams in the league. It means you have a chance to compete for a championship every year and you know you are going to be right there in the spring as one of the last teams standing.
There should probably be 28 or 29 fanbases around the NHL that would have happily switched places with this team over the past four years.
But in sports we do not often to look at things rationally.
In sports we have a championship or bust mentality — especially with teams like this — and we tend to be harder on the great teams that get close and ultimately fall short than we are the teams that never get close to this level. It’s why Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals always took more heat and criticism for not winning a championship than some middle of the pack team that was never able to even consistently make the playoffs. It’s why Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau spent most of their time together in San Jose fighting off the choker and playoff underachiever label than being recognized as some of the best players of their generation.
It is the curse of expectation.
Because of that, until this group gets their names on the Stanley Cup there is always going to be that “yeah, but…” that follows them around.
Teams like this never really get the credit or recognition they deserve because one or two shots or games have gone against them at the worst possible time when all of the eye balls in the league are on them. It is almost as if everyone is waiting for them to fail instead of viewing them as one of the best teams of their era, which they absolutely are.
What has to make it all so frustrating for Lightning fans is just how close they have been with this current core. They have consistently been right on the threshold of a championship but always fallen just short while allowing a late postseason series lead to slip away. In 2015 they were up 2-1 in the Stanley Cup Final before losing three games in a row. The next year they had a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final, with Game 6 at home, before losing two in a row to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last season they again had a 3-2 series lead in the conference final against the Capitals only to get shutout in Games 6 and 7.
Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Lightning are in the top-three with the Penguins and Capitals when it comes to most regular season and postseason wins. The Penguins and Capitals have combined to win three of those four Stanley Cups. They have been the two obstacles standing in their way and keeping them from a championship.
All of that brings us to this year’s Lightning team, which just might be their best one yet.
Their 36 wins through their first 47 games are tied for the most of any team in the salary cap era, a mark that only the 2008-09 San Jose Sharks and 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks have matched. They are seven points better than they were at this same point last season when they ended the season with 113 points. They are currently on a 129-point pace this season, a mark that only three teams in NHL history have ever reached (the 1977-78 and 1978-79 Montreal Canadiens and the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings).
Their 191 goals are the second-most during that same era, trailing only the 199 the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators scored in their first 47 games. No other team ha scored more than 178 at this point in the season.
They have major award contenders at every position.
Nikita Kucherov is racing toward the Art Ross trophy and for the second year in a row will be in the MVP discussion. Victor Hedman is the reigning Norris Trophy winner and their starting goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago and currently possesses a better save percentage than he did a year ago.
This team is so great as currently constructed that the latter player missed a month of this season and they still went 12-3-0 during that stretch without him.
What makes the Lightning even better this season is the supporting cast around the four stars (Kucherov, Hedman, Vasilevskiy, and Steven Stamkos — don’t forget about him) is even better.
Brayden Point has taken a massive leap in his development this season and gone from being a good top-line player to one of the top scorers in the league. With him they now have three of the league’s top-17 scorers, including two of the top-seven.
The depth around them up front is so good that when none of the three are on the ice the Lightning still control more than 53 percent of the shot attempts, more than 54 percent of the scoring chances, and outscore teams by a 39-31 margin during 5-on-5 play (numbers via Natural Stat Trick).
In other words, they still play like a top-five team in the NHL when none of their three best forwards are on the ice. Comically good stuff. They were still very good without any of those three on the ice a year ago, but not quite this good.
They have a full season of Ryan McDonagh on the blue line who has been even better than he was a year ago in his limited time with the team. Along with him, Mikhail Sergachev is starting to emerge and they finally have a healthy Anton Stralman back after he missed a significant portion of the first half of the season.
While they are dominant at 5-on-5 as a team, they also boast the league’s best special teams with the No. 1 power play unit and the sixth-best penalty killing unit. In every phase, at every level, they are better than everybody else in the league.
That is where the pressure for this team is going to come from.
They have been a “so close, but just short” team for four years now and the team they are putting on the ice this season is even better than any of those previous versions, and probably by a pretty significant amount.
Given that, and given how close they have been in recent years, there truly is going to be a “championship or bust” for this group.
If they finally break through and do it, no one will ever doubt them again and the reputation of the Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman core will forever be changed for the better.
If they fall short again, whether it is in the first round or the Cup Final, the doubt will only increase for a core that is mostly locked in place contractually for the foreseeable future. Whether it is fair or not, there is no margin for error this group. The expectation is definitely the Stanley Cup.
They once again have the team that just might be able to do it. They just need to … do it.