The Tampa Bay Lightning remain one step ahead
Having won is a situation that provides certain and invaluable luxuries. There are the tangible things, like money, and there are also the many benefits it can have on the brain. It minimizes the fear of losing, having won, allowing for players, coaches, and teams to exit their arenas with their heads held high regardless of outcomes.
But what we're learning from the Tampa Bay Lightning moving halfway to a third consecutive Stanley Cup after their series sweep of the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs' second round is that winning provides something far more powerful and advantageous than just the means to digest and reconcile with loss.
Winning provides both the roadmap, the compass, and the deep understanding of the terrain. But more importantly, it has set them up with confidence that they can, in fact, end up at the destination they have set out for themselves.
Tampa Bay executed a masterclass in winning hockey in the postseason versus Florida. One can pore through the data and circle certain numbers in red sharpie to convince themselves that the Panthers were right there with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
Yet, in reality, this was a complete and utter mismatch in a test of execution.
It was as though the Lightning plucked the wings off a fly, leaving the Presidents' Trophy winners to scramble to find a different means of success when their greatest advantage — speed and counter-based hockey — was taken away from them.
The Lightning set up a wall for the Panthers to run into over and over again, reducing a team that scored at historic levels throughout the regular season to three goals throughout the entire series. Much of the credit belongs to Andrei Vasilevskiy, but the Lightning, to a man, didn't turn down a single opportunity to throw themselves into a shooting lane to help their all-time great netminder.
Meanwhile, the Lightning seemed to capitalize on each and every opportunity they bided their time to earn, be it through power plays, counters or breakdowns from the opposition. They took advantage in these moments because they have the talent to do so, but also because they have built up an understanding, over time, that these moments would present themselves.
Ross Colton scoring the winner in the dying seconds of regulation in Game 2 was the perfect microcosm of the difference between the two teams and how the series played out. Their bone structures collectively tested after picking up bruise after bruise blocking shots in a game dominated by the Panthers if measured exclusively by attempts at net, the Lightning took advantage of a frustrated opponent losing focus for just one moment in order to steal the game.
Ross Colton scoring Tampa Bay Lightning’s winning goal with 3.8 seconds left…
— Tom Carnduff (@TomC_22) May 20, 2022
It's fair to wonder how much longer the moments that swing games will favour the Lightning.
But by now we should understand that they aren't coincidences.
The Lightning are who they are, which is a team on the cusp of maybe the greatest three-season run in the history of the league when considering the context of the modernized game, because they set out a plan and carry it out to perfection.
Florida didn't produce a Ross Colton Moment, because the Lightning simply don't let up.
"We came into this series with a plan," Jon Cooper said shortly after the Lightning disposed of their provincial rivals for a second straight season. "You have to sacrifice so much — that's part of the plan. You have to do it if you want to win.
"And these guys are playing right now almost as though they haven't won a Stanley Cup, like they are chasing it for the first time."
Many teams have the ability to execute strategies, and others have the stern stuff required to fling themselves in front of catapulted pieces of frozen rubber without hesitation.
But what makes this team different from the others is that there will be a new plan drawn up for either the Carolina Hurricanes or New York Rangers in Round 3.
Perhaps the Lightning, who may or may not have Brayden Point back after earning an extended rest, will force the action in that series, and be the aggressors.
Maybe it will look a lot like their approach versus Florida.
But however way in which it's designed, the Lightning will have a plan, and they will execute it.
Because where they set out to go, and a destination that is all too familiar for them, is now coming back into vision.
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