Fans of the Tampa Bay Lightning are witnessing the culmination of a team’s growth. The run for this core of Lightning players started in 2014 against these Montreal Canadiens (who swept them no less), and the arc has a chance to end Monday night (in a possible sweep). It would be a fitting bookend to this story.
It’s been a long, painful road to this point for Tampa Bay. They’ve endured heartbreaking losses and collapses at inopportune times, but if 2020 showed us anything, it’s that this team, this organization, learned from those past mistakes. The tired narratives of ‘experience’ and ‘knowing how to win’ once again rear their ugly heads. There’s no real way to quantify those traits. A team either has this knowledge, or it doesn’t. Tampa Bay has leaned on that experience throughout this playoff run, and it’s been something to marvel at.
The Canadiens have been punched in the face at every turn in this series for a team that had ‘team of destiny’ vibes entering the Stanley Cup Final. A lot of us, including myself, felt their playoff magic would keep this series close. ‘Carey Price is going to steal a few games’ or ‘The Lightning will bungle something up at the worst time’ haunted my thoughts. Yet, every single time Montreal has gotten a sliver of momentum in this series, Tampa Bay has aggressively, almost downright vengefully, ripped it away in the most painful way possible.
Game 3 was the game I most expected the Lightning to drop. It was the first Stanley Cup Final game in Montreal in 28 years, the first-ever in Bell Centre. The Habs’ devoted and raucous fanbase would energize them to play their best game yet. Carey Price would step up to the plate and try to keep the narrative alive that he’s one of the best goaltenders in the league.
None of that happened: Tampa Bay sprinted to a 2-0 lead and never looked back. The closest the Canadiens ever got was when Philip Danault made it 2-1 halfway through the first period—and even then, it never felt like Montreal was that close.
Tampa Bay, in every aspect, is better than Montreal. The Canadiens aren’t equipped for this kind of hockey—they’re designed to hold leads. The Lightning can do that too, but better. Montreal is a great counter-attack team; Tampa Bay is better. Montreal is dangerous off the rush; Tampa Bay is deadlier. The Canadiens have big defenders; the Lightning has bigger, better, and smarter defenders. Montreal has one of the best goaltenders in the league, Tampa Bay has the best goaltender.
Tampa has a plethora of riches that is near comical when us fans think about it, yet there is still a morsel of worry in me and the fanbase. I’m sure it’s in the Lightning dressing room too. It’s why they’re refusing to look ahead.
This team’s maturity in all facets of the game is beautiful to watch. The team doesn’t blink when things go awry. They embrace what’s given to them and refuse to back down. They force the opposition to play their game rather than chase it as inferior teams do. They set the tone; they make you hesitate at critical moments, they are the Tampa Bay Lightning, and they’re going to find a way to beat you. Narratives, history, and tradition be damned.
The sad part about all of this is we know it’s the end of the Lightning in this incarnation. There are going to be significant roster moves just to get under the salary cap for next season.
“We don’t know what our team is going to look like next year if we’ll all be together again,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “I know these guys understand that, and they know that, and are well aware of what they can cement with one more win.”
Longtime faces like Tyler Johnson could be on their way out, and as much as he’s been derided by the fanbase, I, myself, have always appreciated Johnson for what he is—a gamer.
“You never question the size of Johnny’s heart,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s a gamer through and through. What I like about him this year, though, in particular, is that he’s really getting to the inside, getting a lot of pucks on net, going to some of those areas you have to go to win.”
Johnson’s buzzer-beater against Montreal during the 2015 series is one of the most memorable playoff goals in Lightning history. His second of the game last night might be more impactful on his legacy, especially after the uncertainty he faced entering this season.
At this point in the game Tampa holds the lead by two goals and Montreal is still technically ‘in’ this game. What does Johnson do? Only embody what the Lightning has become: a monster for anyone to handle. Johnson reads the play and creates a turnover; he enters the zone, fires a heavy shot that Price can’t fully corral, outraces three Canadiens to a rebound to emphasize a ‘you’re not coming back’ vibe into the mindset of Montreal.
That’s what champions do in these situations — they squash hope over and over again.
Every step of the way, the Lightning has squashed any semblance of hope for Montreal. Monday night, they have a chance to solidify their place as one of the greatest teams in modern NHL history. It’s up to them to embrace it.
- It’s Andrei Vasilevskiy or Nikita Kucherov for the Conn Smythe trophy, in my opinion. I’m leaning more toward Kucherov because his point production is absurd. Vasilevskiy is more than deserving with how dominant he’s been for the Lightning. Brayden Point, if he had kept up his goal-scoring hot streak, should also be considered. However, the moment Kucherov stepped onto the ice in Game 1 against Florida, it was clear that he was the engine that made this Lightning offense hum. Don’t listen to the nonsense about his “rest,” giving him an edge. He led the league in points last postseason and did it with an injured groin that eventually morphed into a hip injury. Kucherov is an all-timer, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
- There’s nothing more satisfying than having a crowd, whether big or small, go from raucous and energetic to deflated in mere minutes. Montreal has earned a certain level of arrogance (both the team and the fanbase) stemming from their storied history and championship pedigree. That history still permeates everything they do. So, for a Tampa Bay Lightning team that is 1) from the United States, 2) from the southern United States, 3) an expansion franchise, and 4) seen as a blight on ‘traditionalist hockey,’ there’s a cathartic feeling as the Lightning bulldoze their way forward in this series.
- If Tampa Bay wins the Stanley Cup on Monday night, it’s legacy talk time. What do you think will be the Lightning’s legacy if they secure the championship on Monday?