Tampa Bay Lightning: NHL’s Rodney Dangerfield

The late comedian, Rodney Dangerfield was known world-wide for his well worn punch line: “I get no respect”. Dangerfield built an almost 60 year career on being the poor schlub that never got any respect. Well, the NHL has a team that would warm Dangerfield’s heart and that is the Tampa Bay Lightning.

How else would you categorize a team that has made the conference finals for two consecutive years seemingly without national recognition for doing so? By the way, they are the only team in the NHL final four last year to repeat that feat this year. The Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks and New York Rangers didn’t even sniff the conference finals this year after rounding out the NHL quartet last year. Not only did the Lightning make it back this year but they currently have a 3 games to 2 lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins to go to the Stanley Cup. Still, no respect.

Okay so maybe I’m making too much of a return trip to the conference finals. Maybe this is a relatively common achievement in the NHL. So, let’s look at the facts. In the Eastern Conference since 2000, only two teams had consecutive trips to the conference finals, the Buffalo Sabres in 2006 and 2007 and the Penguins in ’08 and ’09.  The Lightning are the third team in the conference to repeat as a conference final team in the last 15 years. Not enough to deserve respect?

Back to Back

How about the fact that one more win over Pittsburgh in this year’s conference final and the Lightning will achieve something that neither that Buffalo team nor that Penguins team accomplished. The Lightning are about to win the conference final for the second consecutive year.

Let’s delve into this with more detail, shall we? Over the  last two years, only 11 NHL teams made consecutive playoff berths.  Of those teams, no team has won more playoff games or more series than the Tampa Bay Lightning. They have won 25 games and five series and are about to win their sixth playoff series. Still, it doesn’t seem enough to garner a shred of respect outside of the greater Tampa Bay area.

It might sound like a fan’s paranoia, this feeling of lack of respect but we can read here in Tampa. We have the internet down here in Florida and we see and hear the blatant disrespect. Vegas odds makers have favored every team that the Lightning played over them including Pittsburgh in the conference finals. Even after the Lightning beat Detroit in the first round in five games. “They haven’t played anyone”, “they have the easiest road to the second round” were the narratives in the national media. Respect? More like a whole lot of disdain.

The Lightning again were the underdogs, according to the smart guys in Vegas, in the second round against the New York Islanders. Most national hockey “experts” picked the Isles. How did this effect the Lightning? Did they throw in the towel? Did they just go through the motions? Nope, they won the series in five games. They were sure to gain some respect now. Alas, it was not to be.  More of the same narrative nationally: ‘they simply haven’t been tested yet in these playoffs’ was the mantra from the national media.

If the NHL only had six teams, you'd assume that Stamkos would be one of the 24 centres. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Steven Stamkos (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Perhaps it was because as they entered the playoffs this season, the Lightning were facing the prospect of going through the playoffs without its captain and top scorer, Steven Stamkos who had emergency blood clot surgery a week before the playoffs began. I mean, c’mon how can we take the Lightning seriously when they don’t have their top offensive player? No respect, I tell ya.

Add to the Stamkos situation was the fact that Anton Stralman broke his leg about two weeks before the playoffs began. Okay, it’s one thing to lose your top scorer but to lose one of your top pair defensemen? It was too much for the Lightning to overcome or was it? Could the experts be more wrong?

Despite not having Stamkos and Stralman for the first two rounds, the Lightning were 8-2 in the first two series. Despite not having Stamkos in the conference finals after Stralman returned to the lineup but No. 1 goalie, Ben Bishop was lost to injury, Tampa is one win away from a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final. I caution the Tampa faithful not to get too excited. You can be sure that if they can get past Pittsburgh, the Lightning will be the underdogs regardless of which Western Conference team they will face.

That seems to be the least bit concerning to this team. This is a team that was built by architect, Steve Yzerman, for long playoff runs. Through draft picks, trades and free agent signing, Yzerman, his scouting team and coaching staff have brought in and developed this team to be ready to win. In six years as GM, Yzerman has had three teams get to the conference finals.

It’s a Young Man’s Game

The real scary part for the rest of the NHL is just how young this Lightning team is in comparison to the rest of the league. The Lightning are the eighth youngest team in the NHL. This made them the youngest team in average age in the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Perhaps it is their youth that brings about the lack of respect. If that is so, then for the Lightning and their fans, they ought to just let it be.

Let it be that no one outside Tampa respects the things that this team has pulled out over the last year as they continue their quest for hockey’s Holy Grail. Maybe, this is the chip that is solidly on the collective shoulders in the Tampa locker room. They don’t need your respect, they have self-respect in bunches.

They were two games shy of lifting the Cup themselves last season. This year is a chance for redemption for the Lightning. They have been playing all season for the chance to return to play for the Cup. One more victory and they will punch their ticket for the Stanley Cup Final.

Over the last 50 years, only two teams have lost in the Stanley Cup Final one year only to come back and win it the following year. In 1984, the Edmonton Oilers led by the Great One, Wayne Gretzky won the Cup after losing the year before. The other team? Ironically, it was the Penguins in 2009 when they beat the Detroit Red Wings after losing to them the year before. Yes, this is what should finally give the Tampa Bay Lightning their due respect.