In any sport, winning a championship is the ultimate goal. The success of a team is measured in victories, after all, and even one championship can reshape a franchise while turning great players into legends.
When the Tampa Bay Lightning won their first Stanley Cup back in 2004, it was more than just a championship. That victory helped build a foundation for the franchise, and without it, the Lightning may not have been able to weather the years of poor ownership and uncertainty that followed.
The 2020 Stanley Cup is different for Tampa Bay. With Jeff Vinik providing stable ownership after he bought the team in 2010, they aren’t a franchise that is fighting just to exist anymore. They are a thriving organization both on and off the ice, with close to a decade of consistent play and a growing fanbase that had the fifth-highest average attendance in the league throughout the 2019-20 regular season.
Even if the Lightning hadn’t won the 2020 Stanley Cup, they would have continued to be a successful franchise. With a talented core and devoted fanbase, the team would have been successful in 2021, likely fighting for a spot back in the playoffs.
Falling Short Helped Shape the Lightning
Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Lightning have been one of the best teams in the NHL. They made the playoffs six times in seven years while reaching at least the Eastern Conference Final four times in that span of time.
For any franchise, this stretch of success would be exceptional. Many teams are happy to reach the conference finals once or twice a decade, as those deep playoff runs are difficult and help establish you as a true contender to your fanbase.
As the Lightning kept coming up short of their ultimate goal, however, it became harder and harder to not judge their mistakes. There was no shame in losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015, of course, as that helped showcase just how close the Lightning were to becoming a perennial threat.
In the following years, however, doubt started creeping in. They were up 3-2 in the 2016 and 2018 Eastern Conference Final, only to collapse to the eventual Stanley Cup winner in Game 7. This brought forth questions about if the Lightning’s core players could push through a grueling playoff schedule, or if they were destined to come up short.
After they collapsed in the 2019 Playoffs, it became more difficult to believe that this group of players would be able to win it all. The talent was there, but something was just holding them back from reaching their ultimate goal.
For Lightning, 2020 Stanley Cup Was a Personal Mission
With a cap-crunch incoming, it was likely that 2020 would be the last shot for the Lightning to win it all with many of the players that had helped lift the franchise out of a rebuild.
Sure, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman will continue to represent the team for years, but franchise faces like Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat were all aging and had contracts that might need to be moved in order to make room for the next generation of Lightning talent.
This was a core of players that had been through so much together and wanted to win it all for each other as much as themselves. You could see their passion and fight on the ice every night, as they took nothing for granted and earned every opportunity to win.
Winning a Stanley Cup Gives the Lightning Their Due Respect
It’s not easy being a great team with expectations. While every fanbase would rather lose in the playoffs than be a struggling team watching from the outside, there’s nothing worse than seeing your team come so tantalizingly close to a championship, just to ultimately fall short.
Tampa Bay’s 2020 Stanley Cup Championship doesn’t erase the years of playoff struggles the endured. However, it does allow the conversation to be more than just a negative mark on a team that found so much success over the last seven years.
Now, those core players that helped pull the Lightning out of the shadows have that final piece to their legacy in Tampa Bay. Even if the team starts getting split up this offseason, these last few years will be looked back upon as some of the most important in franchise history.
This Cup may not save the franchise as 2004 did, but it will have a lasting impact on its’ legacy. This victory will allow the Lightning to move past the specters that were haunting the team, while further establishing themselves as the team to watch in Tampa Bay.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.