Lightning face enticing, hopeful reality in seasons ahead

BY foxsports • June 16, 2015

If some day the Tampa Bay Lightning hoist the Stanley Cup that eluded them Monday night at the United Center, this possible rise to the top occurring either in the near future or on a distant day with their current core, the opening moments of that climb may be recalled as happening Tuesday afternoon.

At 2:27 p.m., a large roar lifted from about 200 fans who gathered near an exit at the Tampa International Jet Center as the Lightning's airplane emptied following a two-hour, 14-minute flight from Chicago. Chants of "Let's go, Lightning!" from voices in both lines stretching to nearby Jim Walter Boulevard became chants of "Thank you, Lightning!" Some shook small blue-and-white flags and blue-and-white noisemakers. Others broke out in song.

"We've got the greatest Johnson in the world!"

"Glory, glory Captain Stamkos ... and the Bolts go striking on!"

"Obviously, this was a very successful season for us as a team, and I think for the city," Lightning center Steven Stamkos said later. "And it's just going to continue to, hopefully, get bigger and better."

Bigger and better?

The Lightning flirted with the NHL's summit this month. The only thing larger and more memorable than what they did would be winning the Stanley Cup. The only thing grander and more lasting than what they accomplished in returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2004 would be finding a way to grind out two extra victories to cap the most grueling and exhaustive championship chase in all of American professional sports.

It's possible to make good on Stamkos' wish. The window for the Lightning feels like it's opening, not closing, an enticing reality that should make seasons ahead fascinating for their possibility.

Stamkos is 25 years old. Center Tyler Johnson is 24. Wingers Ondrej Palat (24) and Nikita Kucherov (21) are young. Goaltender Ben Bishop (28) has more quality years left, and the future for reserve goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (20) is bright. Then there are veteran influences such as winger Ryan Callahan, center Brian Boyle and defenseman Anton Stralman who have become comfortable after arriving from the New York Rangers.

All those faces and more can grow from what they lived since opening their series against the Chicago Blackhawks, who stand as what Tampa Bay wants to become.

Like when the Montreal Canadiens swept the Lightning in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last year, this Stanley Cup close call can serve as inspiration in time, not a painful memory to be pushed away. Like when the Lightning overcame that bitter quick exit in 2014 and turned frustration into fuel for a 108-point regular season and 14 victories in the Stanley Cup playoffs, this near miss can provide perspective for future progress.

"We didn't want to lose in that fashion," Lightning winger J.T. Brown said. "But you've got to learn from it. We've got a lot of support here in Tampa, and it's only going to be good things to come.

"Right now, I try not to think about next season. I think it's more important to decompress, and obviously, learn from what we did this year. And then we'll be able to take it in to next year."

There will be time to think about next year. For now, the Lightning's wounds from the series against the Blackhawks should be raw. So little separated both teams in a fun, fast and frantic stare down between worthy finalists. There are many reasons why Game 6 proved to be the lone contest decided by more than one goal.

Tampa Bay was about as close as possible to winning as a losing effort in a six-game series can be.

Still, a valuable lesson should be taken from the defeat. The Blackhawks showed how champions exploit those few lapses from the opposition when they happen. The game Monday mirrored the series as a whole: Tampa Bay was good, even terrific at times, but Chicago skated a bit better.

The Lightning must learn to be a bit better if they reach this stage again.

"Wish we could have brought a championship home," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

There will be time for another championship chase. Frankly, it would surprise more if Tampa Bay doesn't make deep postseason runs throughout the next five years than if it does. With each season, if their core faces stay together, the Lightning will become more refined. With each season, if their core faces mature together as a cohesive group, the Lightning will become more dangerous.

Still, there are no guarantees that Tampa Bay will be presented with another berth in the Stanley Cup Final with this promising collection of talent. For now, though, there's optimism.

"Hopefully," Palat said, "yes."

Added Stamkos: "Everyone will be back, and that's the fun part. You look at a team like Chicago who has been able to keep that same nucleus and see the success they've had. And obviously, we hope that we can get back there and have a different result next time."

The road to the next opportunity begins now.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.



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