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NHL

The Lightning Finally Feel Inevitable

Brayden Point of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates after scoring a goal past Semyon Varlamov of the New York Islanders
Bruce Bennett (Getty)

For precisely 15 seconds on Sunday afternoon, the New York Islanders looked like they might be in control. After a period-and-a-half of scoreless hockey in Game 4 against the Lightning, Brock Nelson got the puck with his back to the net in the slot, fought off an attack from Yanni Gourde, then whirled around to find space where he could deposit a wrist shot into the top corner of the net. After a scrappy Game 3 win on Friday, the Islanders had the upper hand as they looked to even the series at two games apiece.

But just as quickly as the underdogs gained an advantage, Tampa Bay’s offense struck like … [deep sigh] … like a bolt of lightning. First, a quarter of a minute later, Blake Coleman caught a Gourde “pass”—it’s so spectacular that I’m not fully convinced he did it on purpose— that went the entire length of the ice, then gained control of himself just in time to stop on a dime in front of Semyon Varlamov and backhand the puck into the net, nullifying Nelson’s goal.

Just 12 seconds after that, the Lightning made an even more extravagant show of their superior offensive strength. Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point all entered the zone together, and after Kucherov attracted both defensemen to his dangerous body, he passed across goal to an open Palat to bring the hammer down. Technically, that wasn’t the end of the game, but another bewitching goal from the same trio early in the third allowed the Lightning to then coast to an eventual 4-1 victory for a 3-1 series lead.

It’s been a bit easy to overlook, because Tampa’s embarrassing, winless showing in last year’s playoffs still looms over every game, but the Lightning have been fucking incredible over the past month, winning seven of their last eight and 11 out of 14 playoff games overall. Having dispatched their old tormentors the Blue Jackets and Cup favorites the Bruins in five games, they now look to do the same against the Islanders on Tuesday, and though this series isn’t over yet, it’s hard to see New York as anything other than an outgunned squad trying their best.

Even without the injured Steven Stamkos, the Lightning appear to be overflowing with all the sorts of guys you need to win a Cup. There’s a top line that delivers fatalities to opposing goaltenders. There’s a “Gnats” line further down, named for their annoyingness to opposing goaltenders and not their size, bringing a kind of intensity that was missing from prior versions of this club. There’s also Norris finalist Victor Hedman, and, of course, the bubble’s best goalie remaining in Andrei Vasilevskiy. It’s been absolutely far too much for any one team to handle, and there’s no obvious reason why that should change this week.

Still, over the prior five seasons many of these Lightning players have been blindsided by disappointment, and this path they’re currently retreading will all be meaningless if they can’t follow through and finally become champions. In 2015 they lost the Stanley Cup to Chicago. In 2016 they lost Game 7 of the Conference Final to Pittsburgh. The following year they somehow missed the playoffs entirely. The year after that they lost in another Conference Final Game 7 to Washington. And last year … well … Columbus happened.

But, as the NHL’s last two champs will tell you, a long-term build-up of failure does not stop a team from eventually hoisting the Cup, and this certainly looks like Tampa Bay’s best opportunity for glory since 2004. For anyone who’s watched the last several postseasons, something may sound just a bit off about that statement. But the onus is on the three remaining teams to prove it wrong.