Winning a championship is great. It doesn’t matter how it happens. After all — flags fly forever, right? So, bringing in the greatest player in your sport and surrounding him with his hand-picked teammates is great (right, Lakers fans?). Spending more money than some small nations and adding a MVP candidate in a lopsided deal is also perfectly acceptable (right, Dodgers fans?).
Still, there is something about winning a title with a core group of players that have known heartbreak, and with a management team that resisted the temptation of blowing up that core after repeated failures that makes it just a little bit sweeter. That’s what makes the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2020 Stanley Cup a silver lining during a stormy 2020.
Any team that lifted that beautiful trophy this year would have had to overcome a lot. Coming back from a three-month break due to life being shut down by Covid-19, spending two months in a bubble with limited access to family or familiar surroundings, playing a game while the country was dealing with nationwide demonstrations against police brutality — those factors made it difficult for all of the teams competing in the playoffs.
On top of that, the Lightning dragged their own personal baggage into the Toronto bubble along with their Play Stations and their guitars. Was this group of players, basically a carbon copy of the previous season’s team, going to be able to avoid the same fate that had befallen them in 2019? The hockey gods obviously had a sense of humor by constructing things so that they would face the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team that had swept them a year prior in one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports, in the first round again.
That sweep was just the culmination of playoff frustration during the most recent era of Lightning hockey. It’s been seven seasons since Coach Jon Cooper has been behind the bench full time for Tampa Bay. They’ve made the playoffs in six of those seasons (the one they missed, they just barely missed despite a multitude of injuries to top players) and have been considered Stanley Cup contenders for at least four of those playoff runs.
While they were considered a good team, the 2014-15 squad surprised a lot of pundits by making it to the Stanley Cup Final where they were dispatched in six games by a veteran Chicago Blackhawks squad. Ever since then, they’ve been picked to win the Stanley Cup by at least one of two media talking heads. Instead, they’ve met with heartbreak every season.
2015-16: They have a three-games-to-two lead in the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins despite not having Steven Stamkos (blood clot) in the line-up. Their comeback from three goals down in Game 6 came up short. Stamkos returned for Game 7, but a Brian Rust goal midway through the second period was the difference in a 2-1 win for the Penguins.
2016-17: Injuries hammered the Lightning with Stamkos only appearing in 17 games (torn knee), Ryan Callahan in 18, and Ben Bishop in 32. A dismal stretch of play in January led to them trading away key players (Bishop, Brian Boyle) at the deadline. Still, they came roaring back to finish the season with a 20-7-4 run and finished one point out of the playoffs.
2017-18: Mostly healthy again the Lightning won a then-franchise record 54 regular season games and made it back to the Eastern Conference Final. Once again they held a three-games-to-two lead, this time against the Washington Capitals. Their offense went missing in Games Six and Seven as they were shut out in both games by Brayden Holtby.
2018-19: Sixty-two regular season wins. Zero postseason wins. Yeah, that was bad.
I’m sure fans of a lot of teams would be more than happy with those results. In fact, even as a Lightning fan it was kind of hard to complain about their relative success, especially considering the dismal play for most of their pre-2003 existence. Still, there is a lingering feeling that the Lightning were going to join a list of teams like the Buffalo Bills of the early 1990s or Philadelphia Eagles of the late 1990s. Teams that had a lot of regular season and playoff success, but could never win the big one.
So, it was understandable that there was little trepidation in the hearts of Lightning fans as the team began the 2020 playoffs, especially considering their arch-nemesis, Columbus, was their first round opponent. Had that first game, the five-overtime one, had gone the opposite way, perhaps things would have played out differently. Maybe, a first game loss would have rattled the Bolts and they would have floundered again. Instead, they won on Brayden Point’s fluttering shot from the slow. From then on it was a steady march through their competition.
History will probably say that the Lightning won things pretty easily. None of their series went to seven games, they never lost two games in a row, and they never faced elimination. Still, in the heart of the moment, every game seemed a lot closer than they needed to be. Of their 16 wins, 10 were one-goal victories, and 5 were in overtime. So, there was plenty of antacid sales going on in the Tampa area.
Throughout the postseason, the Lightning advanced with a rigid, unemotional focus, never getting too high after a win or too low after a rare loss. A lot of that can be attributed to the coaching staff, but also to the players themselves. With the core of this team having been so close so many times before only to see defeat, they knew that nothing really mattered until they capped off that final victory in the Stanley Cup Final.
That shared baggage of misery is what made the Lightning’s win so much sweeter. There were nine players celebrating the Cup win in Edmonton that had also been on the 2015 squad that lost to the Blackhawks and also suffered through each subsequent failed season. It’s a remarkable retention rate for a team that’s remained competitive in a salary cap era. It also speaks to how young they were when they had the first chance to win the Cup.
The lack of major change in the roster also showed management’s faith in their system. Not only did those nine players stay, the 2020 champions had five more players that they drafted and a couple, like Erik Cernak and Yanni Gourde that they developed in their AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch. Yes, they added a few final pieces in trades and free agent signings, but it was very much a home grown roster.
If Lightning management had blown up the team after the loss to Washington in 2018, or fired Cooper after the debacle in 2019, and still went on to win the Stanley Cup this past year, yeah it would have been great, but it wouldn’t be as special as it was since the main group of players were able to claim redemption for all of the times they had previously come up short.
Every Stanley Cup victory seems to have its defining moment although sometimes fans may argue exactly which one it was.
In 2004, it’s Martin St. Louis double overtime goal in Game Six (sorry Calgary fans) or Vincent Lecavalier’s throwdown with Jarome Iginla. In 2020, there is no argument as to which moment defined the Finals.
The Captain. From “SeenStamkos” to OK Hockey to a broken nose in Game Seven of the 2011 Easten Conference Final to a rehab from a broken leg, torn knee ligament, and a blood clot to all of the losses mentioned above he has literally been through it all.
In the moment the goal was magical, when all we knew was that after months of rehab he was finally back on the ice. Then, after the playoffs, to learn what he had been through off the ice, and the fact that he scored right after re-injuring himself, made it almost surreal.
For me, personally I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier for a player in my life than when Steven Stamkos raised the Stanley Cup. After all he had been through, and the fact that he had committed to staying in Tampa when he could have easily signed elsewhere, that he put in all the time and effort during those comebacks from injuries, it was just great to see it all come together for him.
Stamkos wasn’t the only one that shook the monkey off of their back with the win. Victor Hedman, drafted the year after captain Steven Stamkos, has anchored the defense and become a perennial Norris Trophy candidate. His domination from the blueline in 2020 surely helps erase what was previously a rather unflattering Stanley Cup memory.
Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat were known as the Triplets back in 2015, a trio of young guns just up from Syracuse who brought a new sense of energy to the team. Johnson may not have put up impressive offensive numbers, but he was part of a hard-working defensive line that kept opponents in check. Kucherov developed into one of the best players in the league, but his passion and effort level were questioned from time to time. He left no doubt about effort this time around by putting up a postseason-leading 34 points. Palat, finally healthy after years of dealing with nagging injuries, was the secret ingredient in the Lightning’s top line with Kucherov and Brayden Point.
Following the loss to the Blackhawks in 2015, Stamkos told Grantland.com
“You never know when you’re gonna have this opportunity again,” Stamkos said, “and [if] you let it slip through your fingers …” He repeated the worry a few minutes later. “When you don’t get it done, it’s tough to say, ‘Oh, we’ve gotten the experience, and we’ve been here now’ when you never know if you’re gonna get this chance again.”
Thankfully, for Stamkos and all of the other players that suffered through another four years of disappointment they did get that chance again, and they made the most of it.