TAMPA — This season is not a make or break campaign for the Lightning.
It is not Stanley Cup or bust.
Of course that’s the goal. It’s every team’s ultimate goal when training camp breaks. For some teams, that goal is out of reach sooner than others.
But for all teams, the first step in that process is to reach the playoffs, and if you get in, you have a chance to win.
And let’s face it, with Ben Bishop the Lightning have a goaltender capable of stealing games in the postseason — assuming Tampa Bay gets in.
This season, however, will not be defined by how far the Lightning make it, whether they reach the Stanley Cup finals, get knocked out in the first round or even suffer a late-season collapse and somehow miss out on the postseason.
Instead, this will ultimately be defined as a season in which Tampa Bay went through a transition.
With a new head coach behind the bench, a handful of rookies in the lineup on a nightly basis and the seemingly eternal search for consistent goaltending apparently coming to an end, the Lightning have already accomplished so much more than many expected.
The biggest topic of conversation during training camp about how to approach the season was to be in the playoff picture come March and April, and that’s exactly where Tampa Bay sits with less than a month remaining in the regular season.
So, in that aspect, it’s already mission accomplished.
But the Lightning have accomplished so much more.
During the course of the season, the rookie class — Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Radko Gudas, etc. — has taken the step from unsure first-year NHL players in a lower-line role into front-line players counted on in a bigger role. For the most part, it has been a seamless transition.
The biggest transition came in the past two weeks as captain and long-time face-of-the-franchise Marty St. Louis — in his first year as official team captain — asked to be traded to the New York Rangers, thereby cutting the final thread to the 2004 Stanley Cup championship team.
The captaincy was quickly passed to Steven Stamkos, ensuring that this young and rising team is led by one of the league’s young superstars.
Now, with the transition period in full swing, the experience gained by many in the midst of their first playoff race will prove valuable in future seasons. Though many of those players have experienced winning at the minor-league level — including coach Jon Cooper — this is still a new experience seeing other teams ratchet up the intensity when it comes to crunch time and finding a way to match that on a nightly basis.
So, no matter what takes place throughout the rest of the season, the transition is in full effect.
The new chapter in Lightning lore is currently being written, and for the first time in quite a while, there are a new batch of authors taking care of the script.