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It says something — perhaps the most — about the Tampa Bay Lightning that their downfall followed a long, arduous, excruciating path, and for more than a moment appeared predicted prematurely. Such is the case with powerful and oppressive forces in real life and in fantasy; these things aren't easily vanquished.
Twenty-three more wars had to be waged with four more talented opponents before the Lightning finally met their death in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final. They were just two wins from not only survival, but unimaginable glory, had they prolonged their rule atop the hockey world for a third straight season.
Instead they exit empty-handed just the like others — only far more battered in addition to being broken.
There were signs, though, that a hockey team that had matured into an entity which could withstand just about anything was faltering before the Avalanche plunged the knife deep into its heart in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Routine travels from down the tunnel and into the training room weren't exclusively return trips. Pat Maroon promised the injury list would be shocking, and he wasn't bluffing. That meant no miraculous comeback from Brayden Point after his crushing exit weeks ago, while other injuries impacted performance up and down the lineup.
-Perry had shoulder/AC joint sprain vs. NYR
-Point had significant quad tear vs. TOR
-McDonagh mangled finger from block vs. NYR
"To be honest, every player on the roster had multiple contusions along the way."
All players are expected to make a full recovery.
— Chris Krenn (@Chris_Krenn) June 28, 2022
The mystique was also broken when it came to the Lightning's unmatched and unwavering resiliency when the New York Rangers beat them twice in succession to start the Eastern Conference final. It happened again versus Colorado.
This was also a team already without pieces of itself after repeating as Stanley Cup champions last summer.
The Lightning were finally on a level playing field, it seemed, after rejecting and withstanding every and all forces — including the unassailable squeeze of the salary cap — across three seasons, 11 playoff rounds, and nearly 70 total postseason games.
And the Avalanche, of course, proved to be a team talented enough to take advantage of that.
Now the common knee-jerk reaction is to assume that this chapter is over for the Lightning. That after a historic regular season four years ago, and three consecutive and highly attritive trips to the Stanley Cup Final, they couldn't possibly return to this stage.
That, after maybe the greatest four-season stretch in the modern era of hockey, the torch has been passed.
It's the sort of thinking that lived deep in the subconscious of some reporters serving up questions to Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, leading to the quote we will most certainly circle back on if Tampa Bay finds itself in a similar position next season.
"Oh, we're not done."
Contrary to how it feels, the Lightning have less to lose this summer than last, and when compared to the Avalanche and many other teams hoping to build a championship-level team.
Ondrej Palat, Nick Paul, and Jan Rutta are the only pending free agents on the roster competing for the limited salary dollars at general manager Julien BriseBois's disposal. It seems entirely possible that they lose just one key contributor unless Palat and Paul are determined to maximize their earning potential to the fullest extent.
In many ways the success of the offseason hinges on the Lightning's ability to retain Palat, and if BriseBois can accomplish that, the composition of his roster will have survived another offseason.
It's still an abbreviated break for the players, remaining shortened since the COVID-19 pandemic threw the NHL's schedule out of whack. But the summer will also provide the Lightning with the most "normal" opportunity to rest and recharge taxed bodies and legs after celebrating the Stanley Cup deep into mid-July last summer.
Barring something unforeseen, the Lightning will remain largely the same — which is world-class from top down.
It's still a team that can both set a standard few can match, but also even any playing field.
It's still a team with a championship nucleus.
It's still a team that burns hotter than just about anyone else.
The Lightning have proven over the last four seasons that they are unlike any other team in the NHL, so let's not assume they will follow the same path as other former champions and drift away rather than sustain the peak of their powers.
It isn't time, yet, to eulogize the Lightning.
This dynasty story isn't complete.
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