Defending a title takes a certain hunger

by Gary Shelton on June 14, 2022

in general

Vasilevskiy wants another title./TIM WIRT

Tuesday, 4 a.m.

For the most part, all champions look the same.

They look smart, and they look skilled, and they look resilient. Standing there in the confetti, with the music blaring, it feels as if it will last forever. You can see their fire, and their will, and the speed in which they overtake their opponent.

That's the thing about success. It feels as if it will last forever.

And it rarely does.

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That, more than anything, is the seal of greatness on this current Lightning team. They were satisfied with one trophy. They reloaded, and they stayed hungry. They have one more series to go, of course, and it will be a difficult one. But already, they are the closest thing Tampa Bay has seen to a dynasty. They have maintained greatness longer than any other team in Tampa Bay history.

Sure, there have a great goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Nikita Kucherov is a magician, and the defense blocks shots until the players are polka-dotted. But the greatness of this team has come over three seasons, and 11 straight series wins. It lost Kucherov for an entire season a year ago. This year, they lost a line of Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman, and it merely shrugged and kept winning.

So what sets them apart? The absolute mental vise that clamps down in the post season. There is skill, sure, but there is a standard that will not accept less. You better be a lot better than the Bolts to win by a little.

Oh, we thought that way when we saw the 2002 Bucs, didn't we? That team had Been knocking on the door for a while. Its stars — Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Ronde Barber -- were still young.

But in 2003, the Bucs slid to 7-9. They lost two overtime games early, and had a four-game losing streak, and gave up more than 30 in their last two losses. It was as if the head coach and general manager couldn't agree on the time of day. Injuries happened. Mediocrity happened.

Not long after, it was the Lightning's turn. That Bolts' team had so much young firepower with Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle.

But the entire league conspired against the Bolts that year. The labor wars caused the league to shut down for a year. When it came back, it had counted the off year as a contract year, so goalie Nikolai Khabibulen was gone. The team slid from a 106-point season to 92 and was gone in four games of the post-season.

How about the Rays? They've reached the World Series twice, but their follow-up season wasn't as good. In 2020, the Rays went into the season without Blake Snell or Charlie Morton (and Tyler Glasnow was hurt) . The team won 100 games, but lost to the Red Sox in the post-season. The Nelson Cruz experiment never worked out.

It was much the same in the 2009 season. The Rays fell from 92 wins to 84 despite the presence of David Price, Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford.

And that's the thing. It's hard enough to win once. It's harder to find the drive to win a second time. Add this in: This post-season will be the most difficult for the Lightning. They will face two No. 1 seeds and two No. 2s. Last year was a one, a two, a three and a four. The year before, it was a a one, two threes and a four. Back in 2004, it as an eighth, a seventh, a third and a sixth.

Think about that as the Lightning gets ready to play for its third straight Cup. In a free-agent world, that's amazing.

They are the best of us, these Lightning. That's true win or lose.

But as the Bolts can tell you, winning is more fun.

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