Tampa Bay is the quintessential non-traditional hockey market and the Lightning are playing for their second Stanley Cup. A lot of people don't like that. But that's their problem.
"...for me it's just a team that is standing in my way right now." - Martin St. Louis of the New York Rangers on facing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2015 NHL Playoffs
When St. Louis said that prior to the Eastern Conference Final, a lot of Lightning fans took it as a personal insult, although it could be said that it was actually the highest praise he could pay toward the team with whom he'd established himself and spent the majority of his career. For one thing, as an opposing player, regardless of history, that mindset is absolutely correct. And the pendulum swings both ways in that regard; it's exactly the way you'd want and expect Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle, as well as all the Lightning players without ties to the Rangers organization, to approach it. For another, referring to the Lightning as 'just a team' is a compliment that many provincially-minded hockey people simply can't (or won't) bring themselves to pay.
Don't get me wrong; this isn't intended to be one of those whining, pathetic "everybody is against us and we don't get any respect" screeds. That's a tired, cheap and manipulative ploy, probably the most eye-rollingly hollow and overused motivation tactic ever foisted upon the world of sports. Before the season began, the Lightning were picked by most credible media outlets to have a very good season and by many to go deep into the postseason. The fact of the matter is that the Lightning play in what is frequently referred to as a "non-traditional market" and until ponds freezing over throughout the state of Florida is a common occurrence for 100 years or so, that designation is going to stick. Might as well not only accept it, but go ahead and openly embrace it.
There are those throughout the world of hockey who use that term as a derisive slur, with the intention of demeaning and belittling. The fact that the Lightning, based in Tampa, part of the Tampa Bay region, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the state of Florida will play for the Stanley Cup for the second time in their relatively brief history, laying waste to half of The Original Six in the process (so far), rankles those people to no end. To them, the Lightning are not "just a team" but "just a non-traditional market team" (pronounced most effectively while sneering).
I've never been able to understand that thought process. If you love something as much as these people say they love hockey, why wouldn't you want to promote and share that love with as many people in as many places as possible? Seems to have worked with soccer and basketball. Still, there are people out there who believe the game is "theirs" and should only be shared with those they deem worthy. That's even more reason to go ahead and own the non-traditional title. This is not something that should make you feel embarrassed or insulted or put-upon in any way; this is something that should fill you with a warm satisfied glow. This Tampa Bay Lightning team is giving you the golden opportunity to thumb your nose in the general direction of all those established, provincial thinkers who are under the mistaken belief that the team you root for doesn't even deserve to skate on hallowed NHL ice, let alone hoist its most cherished reward.
Let's recap the opponents the Lightning have faced so far this postseason...
ROUND 1: The Detroit Red Wings (est. 1926 as the Detroit Cougars)
Detroit is called "Hockeytown" because they started calling themselves that. Shut up Warroad, Minnesota, Binghamton, New York, Sarpsborg, Norway and others who would lay claim to that moniker. The winged wheel logo combined with the word "Hockeytown" is a legally registered trademark of the Detroit Red Wings. The Lightning won that series in seven games.
ROUND 2: The Montreal Canadiens (est. 1909 with the NHA, with the NHL since 1917)
Les Habs have won 24 championships, 22 Stanley Cups since 1927 when the Stanley Cup started being awarded exclusively to NHL franchises, which is at a rate of over 25% of the time. As a result, their fans and media have come to believe they're entitled to win it at least once every four years. Any time they don't, it's seen almost entirely as a failure on the part of the Canadiens. The Lightning brought about this year's failure in six games.
ROUND 3: The New York Rangers (est. 1926)
From the outset of the Eastern Conference Final, we all heard the stories about goalie Henrik Lundqvist's record in elimination games and how the Rangers had never lost a Game 7 on home ice and so on. All very impressive accomplishments to be sure (and now all answers to trivia questions) but because they were presented with all the bombast and hyperbole that often accompanies anything to do with New York sports, where "fast" becomes "fastest" and "pretty good" becomes "greatest", it was as if simply speaking those stats aloud meant not having to actually play the games themselves. Well, they did play the games and the Lightning won four of them, including Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.
Meanwhile, we're just down here packing a virtually abandoned shopping mall to standing-room only so we can watch away games together and eating the vegetables we grow in our on-site hydroponic garden while firing off actual lightning bolts inside our arena at home games. Not just a team? That's fine. My point is, you're damn right we're non-traditional. That's not likely to change any time soon, so don't worry about it. On the contrary, embrace it, own it, wear it as a badge of honor! And enjoy the fact that your team is making life miserable for those who have a problem with it.
And now the Lightning will face the Chicago Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup, marking the first time in NHL history a team has faced four Original Six teams in the postseason. Of all the Original Six teams, Chicago is probably the team that has the least history with Tampa Bay, outside of them being the opponent in the Lightning's first game (a 7-3 Bolts win on October 7, 1992 with Chris Kontos scoring a non-traditional four goals in front of a sellout crowd of 10,425 at the extremely non-traditional Expo Hall at the State Fairgrounds). That's about to change in a big way. Right now though, they're just a team standing in the Lightning's non-traditional way.