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The climate of Tampa, Florida does not lend itself to being a natural hockey location. However, the NHL saw potential in the region and granted franchise rights to an ownership group led by hockey hall of famer Phil Esposito which established the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992.
Typical for most expansion teams, the Lightning endured adversity in their first few seasons which left them in last place in their division. Their first winning season was in 1995-1996 which culminated in their first trip to the playoffs. A first round exit at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers led to six more seasons without a postseason berth. Injuries, business issues, and poor play had the Lightning in a tailspin.
By 1999, the Lightning had been sold twice and were beginning to stabilize. Vincent Lacavalier, their first overall draft pick from 1998 was blossoming into a star. So, too, was another draft pick in Brad Richards. John Tortorella was bumped up to head coach in 2001 and the team took off. Martin St. Louis joined the team and made a name for himself. A first place division finish brought the Lightning back to the playoffs where they would make it as far as the second round. In 2004 the group cemented themselves in NHL history with their first Stanley Cup championship. Defeating the Calgary Flames in seven games, the Lightning were at the top of their game.
Perhaps poised for a repeat, the plans were spoiled by the NHL lockout. While remaining competitive in the years the followed, Tampa was just never able to reach that championship plateau again. As with all great teams, time saw the demise of this dominant club. Through free agency, trades, firings, and retirement, the Lightning turned over their roster and dropped to the bottom the standings.
The silver lining for this team came in the form of draft picks. The Lightning selected Steven Stamkos 1st overall in the 2008 draft and Victor Hedman 2nd overall in the 2009 draft. Both players would play a huge role in the resurgence of Lightning hockey. Acquiring pieces from all over, the Lightning added goaltender Ben Bishop and Ryan Callahan. Under head coach Jon Cooper, the puzzle began to come together and Tampa was back on the hockey map. Demanding more from his players, Cooper pushed his squad along through a talented Eastern Conference field to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in team history in 2015. They would lose to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games but proved to the league that they were not a mirage. They would make it to the Conference Finals again in 2016, but fell in seven games to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Despite another winning season in 2017, the Bolts were on the outside looking in for the playoffs. Having their captain, Steven Stamkos, out for the majority of the season with a knee injury definitely affected the team. Ready to go for the 2017-2018 campaign, Stamkos and company shook off the cobwebs and had a great season, amassing a record of 54-23-5 for a first place finish not only in their division, but in the entire Eastern Conference. Bigtime contributions from Nikita Kucherov (who signed an extension in the offseason for 8 years and $76 million), Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy were critical to the team’s success.
Cruising through the playoffs, Tampa showed New Jersey the exit in five games before ending Boston’s season in another five game series. Reaching the Eastern Conference Finals, the Lightning squared up against the Washington Capitals in what would be a series for the ages. Stamkos against Ovechkin for a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup made for a great storyline and the drama escalated with each game of the series. Steller play throughout this hard-fought series brought the action to a climactic seventh game to decide it all. However, Tampa Bay could not seal the deal as they were eliminated with a 4-0 score in the final game.
Reloading for the 2018 season, Tampa locked in defenseman Ryan McDonagh with a new contract for seven years at $6.76 per season. JT Miller also re-signed with the club for a five year deal. A fantastic start has Tampa primed for another deep playoff run. Could this be the year Stamkos hoists the Cup?
Though still a fairly young franchise, the Tampa Bay Lightning has been home to a number of hockey greats. Some of the favorites in the Tampa area are Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lacavalier, Victor Hedman, Brad Richards, Nikita Kucherov, Ben Bishop, Tyler Johnson, and Nikolai Khabibulin. More information about the Tampa Bay Lightning can be found by clicking here.