A spot in history is waiting for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After triumphing over the New York Islanders 1-0 in Game 7 Friday night at Amalie Arena, the Lightning now has the chance to defend their 2020 Stanley Cup Championship properly. The players and coaching staff reiterated throughout the season that their goal was to return to the Stanley Cup Final and win back-to-back championships. They wanted to be remembered as a special group, not one that only won a single championship. Now, they’re one step closer.
Embrace what we’re witnessing with this group of players. A group that is one of the best cores in the entire league for the last seven years. A group that is making their third appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in seven years. A group that saw heartbreak in 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019 but didn’t stop believing they could reach the summit. A group that exorcised all of its demons in a dominant championship run in 2020. A group that wants to make their mark in NHL history.
“It’s all well and good to one day put on your gravestone that you won a Stanley Cup,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “But to do it two years in a row? Now you’re talking about your team is special, and years down the road, they’ll say, ‘well, that Tampa team during some time was a hell of a team.’ I think you can really put a stamp on that if you can win another one.”
Winning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is difficult, “damn difficult” in Cooper’s own words, but every time the Lightning found themselves being challenged, they pushed back. After failing to close out the Islanders in Game 6, Tampa Bay put on a masterful defensive performance to squeeze the life out of their opponent.
“You just can’t count them out,” Cooper said. “They went into warrior mode.”
We’re not witnessing the same Lightning team that struggled to close out series in years past. They’ve evolved into a hardened group that has repeatedly shown a champion's resolve. There’s a belief in how they approach the game that is embedded into the organization's culture. That culture was on full display when every single staff member and player (whether they played a game or not) was brought onto the ice to celebrate with the Prince of Wales Trophy.
“Everyone is involved. It started last year too,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We said, as a group, if we’re ever going to get a chance to win the Stanley Cup, it’s gonna take 50-plus guys. Guys that are in camp that are going to get a chance to play a game or a practice or whatever it is. You don’t get to see how hard those guys are working behind the scenes just to be prepared in case something happens. So, it’s a team effort, and we want to acknowledge everyone as part of that because that’s how tight this group is.”
Winning a single Stanley Cup is an arduous and emotionally draining experience. However, it’s rarer for a team to make back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals. Only two teams have accomplished this feat in the salary cap era, with only one winning back-to-back championships: the Detroit Red Wings (2008/2009) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (2008/2009/2016/2017). The Lightning is only the third team to accomplish this feat. It remains to be seen if they’ll become just the second team to win back-to-back championships during this era.
“We still got a job to do.” said Andrei Vasilevskiy about the road ahead.
Ahead is a matchup against an Atlantic Divison rival, a team they haven’t played against in the postseason since their 2015 Stanley Cup Final run; the Montreal Canadiens. A lot has been said about Montreal this season; they weren’t good during the regular season and, at times, looked like a lottery team masquerading as a playoff hopeful. However, they squeezed into the postseason and have made a memorable run to the Final. They took down the heavily favored Toronto Maple Leafs, wiped the floor with a severely flawed Winnipeg Jets team, and then made the Stanley Cup hopeful Vegas Golden Knights look normal en route to the Stanley Cup Final. Some might call it a fluke run, but the Lightning isn’t taking the bait.
“They’ve (Montreal) been on a great run,” Stamkos said, “They’re going to get the best team that they’ve played against so far, and we’re going to get the best team that we’ve played against so far. You don’t get to the Finals by luck. Every team that gets there deserves it...it’s going to be a tough grinding series.”
Four wins stand between the Lightning and hockey immortality in Tampa Bay and a legacy that only one other team can claim in the salary cap era. They’ll have to draw on their past experiences to get past a Canadiens team that is playing their best hockey and is hungry to win their first championship since 1993. Tampa Bay will be heavily favored, but betting lines and predictions mean little once the puck is dropped on the ice.
The only thing we can do is embrace this group and support them all the way to the end.
Be the Thunder.
- In Nikita Kucherov’s mind, he was always playing in Game 7. “There was no question I was playing tonight.” he said after the game. His head coach wasn’t so sure, “I didn’t feel that way,” Cooper said. “I’m glad he did, and that’s the only vote that counts.” The crowd at Amalie Arena erupted when they saw the superstar winger step on the ice for warmups before the game. He ended up playing 16:28 through 23 shifts. He was noticeably hampered and didn’t control the game as he usually did, but with a few extra days rest heading into Monday’s Game 1, I’d expect Kucheorv to be ready.
- Since their 2019 series loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets (still arguably the biggest fluke over the past decade of playoff hockey), the Lightning is 13-0 after a loss, outscoring their opposition 50-19, with four shutouts. That’s a level of dominance that can’t be centered on one player (though Vasilevskiy has been outstanding in his own right). That’s a team refusing to be pushed into a corner and finding ways to dominate their opponents.
- Yanni Gourde became the first player in Lightning history to score a shorthanded goal in a Game 7. Additionally, on Gourde’s goal, every point went to a forward (Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn got the assists), which is even rarer for a shorthanded goal. However, let's not forget who made the entire sequence happen—Ryan McDonagh. McDonagh’s patience and passing ability made this goal happen. This play likely results in a full-ice clear without him, and the Islanders come right back to try again.
- The Islanders fanbase boastfully proclaimed, “We want Tampa!” after eliminating the Boston Bruins in the previous round. Well, they got Tampa, and it never felt like this was a series slipping away from the Lightning. New York made things interesting, because they’re a damn good team, but this series didn’t have the same feeling as the previous team the Islanders played. New York was a cockroach of a team, refusing to die no matter the circumstances, and it helped push them past Pittsburgh and Boston, but neither of those teams is the Lightning. Over the final three games of the series, Tampa Bay outscored New York 11-3.
- A funny little tidbit about arenas: Joe Louis Arena’s last playoff game featured the Lightning, and now Nassau Coliseum’s final playoff game featured the Lightning. Just an interesting anecdote (that literally means nothing). Any other aging arenas that need final playoff games? Tampa Bay seems to like being in those situations.