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Morning After Thoughts: Champions Don’t Lose in the First Round

The Leafs thought things would be different this time around, but the Lightning reminded them what it takes to be a champion.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Seven Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NHLI via Getty Images

They just don’t die.

“Tampa Bay just knows how to win,” said Wayne Gretzky on the TNT panel.

“Knowing how to win” is an amorphous mantra. Something that is quickly thrust upon teams when they survive a seven-game series and lambasted on teams who can’t get out of their own way. The Tampa Bay Lightning were lumped into the latter for years before vivisecting that reputation in 2020 and 2021.

“You learn from experience,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “Experience doesn’t win you the game, but it sure can help. You cannot let that moment become too big for you.”

That experience and unwillingness to see their chance for a three-peat be denied in the first round were paramount in thwarting the challenging Toronto Maple Leafs.

“We’re standing here on the cusp of greatness,” said Cooper prior to the game. “Why the hell wouldn’t we charge through that door?”

That mentality certainly resonated in Tampa Bay at a crucial juncture. Throughout the early portion of their first-round match-up against the Leafs and for much of the regular season, the Lightning didn’t look like the Lightning that won two consecutive Stanley Cups. They looked a smidge slower, a little discombobulated, and nowhere near as sharp as in previous years; yet, they kept finding ways to win, analyzed their game, and kept the belief that they were still the team to beat. At times, it didn’t look that way, but winning is the only thing that matters, regardless of how it occurred.

Against the most popular team in the league, on Saturday night, in Canada, Game Seven.

“Saturday night. Hockey Night in Canada, Toronto playing. It is good for the sport,” said Cooper. “You’ve got the two-time champs. You’ve got the team rich with tradition...it is must-see TV.”

It was a must-see witnessing Andrei Vasilevskiy return to form in a must-win situation as he repeatedly denied the most potent offense the Lightning has seen the past three postseasons (especially after an up and down series for the 2021 Conn Smythe winner). It was a must-see watching deadline acquisition Nick Paul etch his place into Lightning lore as he became the second player in franchise history, along with 2004 hero Ruslan Fedotenko, to score twice in a Game Seven. It was a must-see as Tampa Bay blocked a staggering 26 shots and slowly yet, efficiently sucked the life out of Scotiabank Arena. It was a must-see how the Lightning rallied behind Brayden Point, who was injured late in the first period and only skated for one more shift in the second to secure another critical game.

“Once Pointer got hurt, it seemed to lock the entire team in,” said Cooper. “I don’t think we looked back after that. I don’t think you have done what we’ve done the last couple of years unless you have players that can respond the way they did.”

That was Tampa Bay’s ideology in this series; weather Toronto's assault and deliver counterpunches when the opportunity arose—efficient, deadly, and unwavering in their belief that they would prevail.

“When guys are laying out and fully committed to keeping the puck out of the net...that is heart,” said Cooper. “We showed a lot of heart tonight.”

The Lightning has faced two Game Sevens since the start of the 2020 playoffs; only the New York Islanders and the Leafs can boast they pushed the two-time champs to the brink. Combined, those teams scored one goal—that’s an emphatic statement toward how this Lightning team stymie’s an opposing offense when all the chips are on the table.

Just as 2021’s playoff run was a gauntlet of exceptionally strong teams, 2022 looks to be even more arduous. Next will be a rematch of last season’s explosive Battle of Florida against the President’s Trophy-winning Florida Panthers. However, this Lightning team’s championship-level determination and skill will be a mountain for any team to climb.