Despite previous playoff woes, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup on Monday, albeit in the strangest of circumstances.
Some might not call it a comeback.
How could it have been when the Lightning were breathtaking in the grueling tournament known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs, going 12-3 in one-score games, including an exceptional six wins in overtime?
How could it be when they were up 3-1 in every series they played in during those two months of postseason play?
Or the fact that they were the hottest team in hockey before the season suddenly ended, winning eleven straight games throughout the month of February?
But, indeed it was a comeback, and it is one that will be ingrained in the minds of those who admire hockey lore for years to come. All one must do to notice this is simply look at the Tampa Bay Lightning organization over the last few decades.
The Lightning won the Cup in Game 7 of the 2004 Final, which was the last contest before the 2004-05 lockdown. Brad Richards was the MVP of those playoffs, scoring 26 points throughout the tournament which remained a Lightning record going into this postseason. John Tortorella was the head coach in Tampa.
This all feels like a lifetime ago, and that could not be more true for the organization as a whole. After that success, the Lightning became renowned for their playoff disappointments.
Two first round losses after the lockdown led to five seasons in which the team failed to qualify in the playoffs over the next six years. Indeed Tampa faced Chicago in the 2015 Final, but the only thing that is remembered from the Lightning’s perspective of that series was Tyler Johnson’s inability to mimic his previous postseason success and a disappointing effort in a deciding Game 6. Then came two defeats in the Eastern Conference Final, one to the Penguins and the other to the Capitals, both squads that went on to raise the Cup.
Yet nothing could have prepared them for the heartbreak of the 2018-19 season.
Tampa was noted as one of the strongest teams in the history of the sport that season. They won their first President’s Trophy in franchise history after finishing with 62 wins and 128 points. Winger Nikita Kucherov led the league in scoring, winning the Art Ross Trophy which was followed by the Hart Trophy for league MVP. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Vezina, leading the league with 39 wins and holding a 2.40 GAA. The talent was there. The regular season success was there. The playoffs were a different story.
Facing the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets, a Game 1 one-goal defeat completely shattered the Lightning’s spirits. They would go on to lose the three remaining games of the series, leading to one of the most shocking playoff sweeps in recent hockey history.
The core of the team was questioned. The philosophy under head coach Jon Cooper was placed under a microscope. How could this team possibly recover from a dominant season being wasted by the hands of a far inferior team?
Yet here we are more than a year after that fall from grace. The Lightning got redemption against the Jackets in the first round, beating them in five games including an epic 5OT classic in Game 1. They would go 8-3 throughout the remainder of the Eastern Conference playoff until clinching the Stanley Cup after defeating the Dallas Stars in six. And to top it all off, they did it in an empty arena, in a different city than Tampa or Dallas and in a different country than the United States. How strange the times are.
Indeed, this campaign and the last for the new Stanley Cup victors are polar opposites. Last season they dominated the league from the get-go. This year, not so much. In fact, after 34 games their record was only 17-13-4 and they were looking on the outside of the playoff bracket.
Last season, an early playoff exit seemed to doom the fate of the franchise. This year, they broke the curse and are returning home as champions.
Last season, they played in roaring stadiums, whether that be at Amalie Arena in Tampa or in away venues. This year, every playoff game had zero fans in the stands due to a global pandemic.
The only thing that remained consistent between the two seasons was the team itself.
Sure there were some differences in the roster during the offseason. J.T. Miller was sent to Vancouver. Anton Stralman signed with the Panthers. Tampa brought in Patrick Maroon, who was just coming off a Stanley Cup-winning run with the Blues. But the foundation of what made this team great remained intact, and finally, these franchise players were rewarded.
Kucherov, along with that entire first line, finally had a postseason worthy of praise. Although he only scored seven goals, his 27 assists led the league among playoff play. He broke Richard’s previous franchise record of playoff points in a single season with 34. The Russian also became the franchise leader in playoff goals, assists and points during this tournament.
Line teammate Brayden Point may have been the best player on the ice for Tampa’s offense. He also bested Richard’s record, scoring 33 playoff points of his own including 14 goals which was the highest total throughout the league.
The Conn Smythe Award recipient was defenseman Victor Hedman. The former second overall pick, Hedman has been with the franchise since 2009 and has established himself as one of the premier defensive players in the sport. And while his offensive numbers did not touch Point’s or Kucherov’s totals, it was his leadership on the ice and his incredible number of minutes played during the postseason (662 TOI) that led to the Stanley Cup MVP selection.
Vasilevskiy was their rock all series. He posted an incredible 1.90 GAA in the postseason, and after giving up four goals in the first game against Dallas he averaged only 2.2 goals against for the remainder of the Final. Not to mention, a Game 6 shutout to win the championship.
And of course, there is Jon Cooper. He joined the organization in 2012 following a dominant season as the headman of the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL a year before. Meaning Cooper had experienced all the playoff disappointment, and he was the face that was associated with said disappointment every single time. There were several accolades in his career, including a two-time selection in coaching the All-Star Game and a 240th career victory in 2018 that placed him above Tortorella as the franchise leader in coaching wins. Yet there wasn’t a Cup, and with that, there was only one appearance to try and add a Cup. Time was undoubtedly running out for Cooper.
Nevertheless, he finally conquered the feat that has been staring down at him since he earned his position with the team. And he did it by besting Rick Bowness (someone who was hired as an associate coach with the Lightning the same year Cooper took hold of the throne) and the Dallas Stars, a team that spent their offseason adding experienced pieces to try and magnify the young core at their disposal.
What the Lightning proved Monday night is that it is okay to stay patient. In the world of professional sports, there is a constant fear of falling behind. That is why we see personnel and players move around so much. Not only do owners have the responsibility of maintaining a winning culture, but they need to make fanbases happy as well.
This is precisely why Tampa fans wanted change after last year’s humiliating playoff defeat. Most had lost hope in the foundation of their team. But Cooper, general manager Julien BriseBois and owner Jeffrey Vinik had not – they remained patient. They knew just how talented their roster was, and all it would take was for them to deliver when it mattered most.
Likely the Lightning didn’t think their time would come under these circumstances, and certainly, their players wished it could have gone a little differently. Yet when the horn sounded, and the Lightning could finally celebrate a Cup victory again, the atmosphere around them failed to exist. It was about the moment, a moment Copper and company have been waiting patiently for for nearly a decade.