The Tampa Bay Lightning have been here before.
Right on the threshold of the Stanley Cup Final and within striking distance of a potential championship.
This Lightning team, with this core of superstar talent, has been one of the most dominant teams in the league since the start of the 2014-15 season, winning more regular season (297) and more playoff games (49) than any other NHL team. Their 1,565 regular season goals are also by far the most in the league.
Washington (294) is the only team within 20 regular season wins of them, while the Capitals (41) and Penguins (40) are the only teams within 12 playoff wins of them. They have completely and totally dominated the NHL in the regular season, and have been way more successful in the playoffs than they sometimes get credit for.
Simply winning in the playoffs has not been the issue.
Finishing in the playoffs has been.
This is the Lightning’s fourth trip to the Eastern Conference Final in six years. They got through to the 2015 Cup Final, while in each of the other three appearances (including this one) they were the first team in the series to three wins.
It was at those points that everything started to fall apart, and it is always the same story — their consistently lethal offense completely dries up.
When they made it through to the 2015 Cup Final, they took a 2-1 series lead against the Chicago Blackhawks. They followed that up by losing three games in a row, scoring only two total goals.
The next season they returned to the Eastern Conference Final and took a 3-2 series lead against the Penguins before returning home for Game 6 with a chance to close out the series. They ended up losing the next two games, managing only three goals.
It was a similar story two years later when they took another 3-2 series lead in the East Final against the Capitals. They followed that up by losing the next two games and scoring zero goals.
In 2015 and 2018 it was a case of the highest scoring team in the league (as the Lightning are again this season) just simply being unable to score goals with a chance to put the series away.
It would be unfair to criticize them for not winning a championship.
Championship-or-bust mentality is always going to just set you up for disappointment because the odds of ending your season with the trophy are enormously stacked against you, even if you are the very best team in the league.
Since the start of the 1990-91 season only 16 teams have actually won a title (and Tampa, going back to a previous era in 2004, is one of those 16). More than half of those championships have won by just four different franchises (Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, and New Jersey).
In short, championships are rare, and winning one requires a lot of things to go right at the exact right time. So it is not necessarily an issue that this group of Lightning players has not won. It happens.
What’s odd is how consistently close they have been to winning, for so many years, without having actually broken through.
That is where the frustration has to come in.
But maybe this is the year that ends.
Even without Steven Stamkos, this Lightning team has looked to be on a mission. The top line is buzzing. The additions (Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Kevin Shattenkirk, Pat Maroon) made by Julian BriseBois and the front office have been significant across the board. Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy are playing like the recent award winners that they are.
I also just happen to believe that great teams will eventually break through. We saw it happen in each of the past two seasons with franchises that had been consistently outstanding, only to deal with consistent frustration.
Between the 2011-12 and and 2017-18 seasons the St. Louis Blues were the second-best regular season team in the NHL in terms of wins and points percentage. But during that seven-year run they made it out of the First Round just three times, and out of the Second Round only once. They finally broke through last season after everyone had given up on them as contenders.
It was a similar story with the Capitals where they were consistently the best regular season team with three Presidents’ Trophies but couldn’t make it out of the Second Round until winning it all in 2018.
The Lightning are clearly good enough to win and are an elite team by every objective measure. Their win totals speak for themselves.
They have stuck with their core and added the right complementary pieces around it. Great teams that do that tend to get rewarded.
Tampa has that chance again.
Pre-game coverage of Islanders-Lightning begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.