The last time the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup, we had no idea when we’d see hockey again. Sixteen years later, the Lightning are once again champions and again we have no idea when hockey will return. So depending on how much COVID-19 plays havoc with the world over the next couple of months, the Lightning have a chance at another long Stanley Cup reign.
And that is entirely fitting, because the Stanley Cup they won was the most difficult to win in the history of the game. And that’s why it deserves an asterisk. It’s why the Tampa Bay Lightning can leave the bubble in Edmonton with the most beautiful trophy in sports with their heads held high, knowing they earned every one of its 34.5 pounds and then some.
Three-hundred-seventy-seven days after they started their 2019-20 season with a 3-0 pre-season loss to the Carolina Hurricanes at Amalie Arena, nine weeks and two days after they were sequestered in the NHL’s Toronto bubble, 17 months after they were humiliated in a first-round sweep in the 2019 playoffs, the Lightning ended the most bizarre and arduous Stanley Cup tournament in history. Along the way, they overcame a so-so start, played two games in Europe, won 10 straight games and lost just two in regulation in a stretch of 26. And they played more overtime in the playoffs than any team in NHL history. They ran the table in the playoffs despite getting just 2:47 in ice time from one of the most dynamic goal scorers of his era. Their goalie played every second of every game. They changed their identity, made bold moves at the trade deadline and methodically dismantled each of their four opponents in the playoffs. They did not lose two consecutive games in the post-season.
Does any of this happen if the Lightning don’t suffer the gut punch of all gut punches courtesy of the Columbus Blue Jackets last season? Probably not. History tells us that all great teams need that kind of demoralizing setback in order to become champions. The Lightning were no exception. And now that they’ve had their moment of redemption, there’s no telling what this talented, young, deep and well-run organization is capable of accomplishing.
“There are some gifted people, I guess, that success finds them instantly,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “But in a team sport, I truly believe that in failure, you have to feel it before you can have success. I guess there are some blessed ones who don’t have to go through that, but you wear the bumps, you wear the bruises, you wear the heartache, you wear it on your sleeve and it keeps you up at night. But it also drives you and the fear of losing almost becomes greater than the joy of winning. And we were not going to be denied.”
No, they were not. And that’s because they Tampa Bay Lightning were simply too good, too talented and too well-run from the top down to not win a Stanley Cup at some point. But talent alone doesn’t win and the Lightning had to sit back and remake themselves after last season. They had to become more boring, to be frank, and that was no more evident that in the clinching 2-0 win over the Dallas Stars in which they gave their opponent almost nothing. It was not fun to watch. But it was what it took to win.
“The players took it on the chin,” Cooper said of last year’s humiliation. “And I can’t be happier for those guys because they deserve it. Those guys have gone through so much heartache and to come back year after year and take our swings and take our licks…talked about as the team that can’t get it done. Well, you know what? We got it done.”
It will come as no solace to the Blue Jackets and for sure will not wipe the scowl off coach John Tortorella’s face – remember when he coached the Lightning to their first Stanley Cup in 2004? – but they were a major part of the this win, from the sweep last year to the five-overtime game the Lightning took in Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs.
“That might have turned the tables for us,” Cooper said. “Because if we don’t win that game, all of a sudden doubt creeps in. We have a pretty resilient group, but you need to see some sort of success. You need to feel it, you need to taste it. If we don’t win that game, who knows? Columbus might be in our head, but when we won that game, I think that was a catapult to where we are now.”
And there is no more deserving a Stanley Cup champion than the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning. “Right from Day 1, we were focused and dialed (in) and on a mission,” said Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “Now we can say, ‘Mission Accomplished,’ which is a pretty incredible feeling.”