TAMPA — The Lightning is a win away from a trip to the Stanley Cup final. Its Game 5 win Saturday, to take a 3-2 lead over the Washington Capitals, was another chapter of a story being written on the fly.
"Think about Game 1 in New Jersey," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "That doesn't even feel like it was this year."
This is how it happens in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It's nearly invisible at first, but the journey grabs hold.
Pick a face out of a Lightning team photo and you'll find someone who has contributed in one way or another. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final, it was grinders Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan. These are faces and names and moments that will always be remembered if this team goes all the way. They're not strangers at this moment.
The team becomes the town. The town becomes the team.
It was that way in 2004, when the Lightning won the Cup. The 2015 run to the Cup final swept people up along the way. It's happening again.
Steven Stamkos becomes "Stammer," Nikita Kucherov becomes "Kuch," Victor Hedman becomes "Heddy." It's ridiculous. It's wonderful. A friendly word of advice: When you begin calling your spouse "Wifey," you might want to tap the brakes.
"We saw it when we went on our first Stanley Cup run, just how amazing this city is," Lightning captain Stamkos said, "everywhere from the grocery store to the restaurant, taking your dog for a walk. Everyone embraces it."
The Bucs once knew what that was like. The Rays knew it for a handful of seasons. Lightning players are ingredients in a feast, strokes on the canvas. Everyone makes his mark, some with a flourish.
Has it really been only six weeks of playoffs? There was New Jersey. There was Boston. Remember when it was. "How do you stop Taylor Hall?" Remember when Callahan took a licking, literally, from Brad Marchand? It's yesterday's news. Remember Ondrej Palat's big night? Remember Dan Girardi's overtime goal?
It builds and builds.
"You look at what (goalie Andrei) Vasilevskiy is garnering, deservedly so, a lot of the accolades here the last couple games," Cooper said. "It was the Brayden Point line in the Boston series. It was Stamkos and Kuch in Game 4 and 5 in Jersey. There's different heroes every night. Can't overlook Paquette, Callahan and Kunitz contributions this round. Our D. There's just so many things that go into it. When it's all added up together, it spells team."
Remember the beach watch party? Or the one in Ybor? Remember the Humboldt Broncos jersey? Talk about the Lightning at work yet?
"Yeah, I definitely learned that in 2015," Cooper said. "I don't think I understood it back then, but I appreciate it now, how it just kind of binds the city together. It's pretty cool when somebody comes up to you and says. 'I haven't seen this group of friends in years, but when the Bolts go on a run, we all get together.' Makes you kind of proud."
It's even more profound for the players.
"For sure," said Tyler Johnson, who truly burst onto the scene in 2015 postseason. "Playoffs are different than regular season. It's not necessarily you're looking at who has the most points or goals. It's not necessarily the flashy stuff. We're talking about guys like Ceddy Paquette and Ryan Callahan who are just crucial for our team by the way they play."
"That's what is so great about that experience is you go through it with each and every one of your teammates," Stamkos said. "There's really no words to describe that camaraderie that you have with the guys."
How does sports do this?
More important: Who cares?
The Lightning traveled to Washington on Sunday to Monday night's Game 6. Part of a town went with it. The waiting is the hardest part. Try walking your dog. It's that time of year. Makes you kind of proud.