TAMPA — Every season, the goal is the same. It’s the one that every hockey-playing kid has from the first time he puts on skates: to hoist the 35-pound silver trophy that is the Stanley Cup.
But what about after you’ve won it, after you’ve reached the mountaintop, then less than four months later start that climb all over again? It can’t be the same, can it?
“How can it not be different?” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s hard to win. And so when you do it, you’re pretty damn proud of what you’ve done. Now, does it change things for us? Yeah, it changes things.”
No longer merely contenders, the Lightning are now bona fide champions. After years of being the hunters, they are now the hunted.
“We’re the defending Cup champs, so now we’ve got the bull’s-eye on our back,” Cooper said. “We’re not getting the night off that maybe other teams might when you play some other teams. That’s not happening to us. So that’s when you test the maturity of your team and see where we’re at. … I fully believe we can win again.”
Hockey people will tell you the Stanley Cup is the most difficult trophy to win in professional sports. As the Lightning’s longest-tenured player, captain Steven Stamkos has felt the disappointment of coming so close (a 2015 Cup final loss to the Blackhawks) and of falling well short of expectations (getting swept in the first round in 2019 by the Blue Jackets after winning the Presidents’ Trophy) before reaching his ultimate goal with last season’s six-game Cup final win over the Stars.
“I just think each and every year it’s extremely difficult to win (the Cup), never mind two in a row,” Stamkos said. “Maybe some teams just get comfortable and happy about winning and obviously having their dreams come true. But I think we realize we have a very special group. We were able to keep most of the group intact. … We have that mentality, and we know what it takes.”
Since the 1998-99 season, only one team has won back-to-back Cups: the Penguins in 2016 and ’17. Dating to 1984, only five teams have won the Cup in consecutive years.
The Penguins also are the only team to win back-to-back Cups during the salary-cap era (from 2005).
The challenge of winning back-to-back Cups might be the biggest indicator of competitive balance in the league stemming from a cap. Dating to 2010, five teams lost in the first round of the playoffs the season after winning the Cup, and another didn’t even make the postseason.
“I think we found out with this past season, you need a lot of things to go right, to go your way,” said Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “You need a little bit of luck, and you need some bounces. But you also need to set yourself up for those opportunities and put your focus on making sure you take care of the little details in the game and give yourself a chance for those bounces and for those things to go your way.”
The Lightning will have a unique set of obstacles this season. An abbreviated 56-game regular season set because of the coronavirus pandemic offers no room for a slow start, and all games will be played among realigned division opponents, magnifying every game as teams jockey for position.
The top four teams in each division will qualify for the playoffs. After playing only division opponents through the first two rounds of the postseason, the winners will advance to face teams they haven’t played all season.
“We can’t afford to have a slow start,” said Lightning defenseman and 2020 playoff MVP Victor Hedman. “You can’t afford to have a two-week lull. You can’t afford to fall behind the eight ball. It’s going to be tough to climb back in, because teams are going to play against one another all the time, and you know it’s kind of tough to climb up again if you fall behind. So that’s the motivation you’re going to have to have preparing for the season.”
Combine that with the uncertainty that comes with the NHL’s first attempt at a season outside a bubble after playing last year’s postseason in one and there many more challenges. Losing players to the coronavirus list would be detrimental in a short season.
“I think it’s going to be more difficult this year for every team just because … that’s the world we live in,” said Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois. “Nothing is as easy as usual. There’re just more hoops to jump through, more potential irritants out there, more potential distractions out there.
“So that’s true for all 31 clubs, though. Why is it so hard to win two Cups in a row? Because it’s really, really hard to win one. It’s incredibly hard to win one, and now you’re trying to beat those odds two years in a row.”
The Lightning were able to keep a lot of their Cup-winning team together, something that’s typically a challenge for title teams in the salary-cap era. Nikita Kucherov having hip surgery that is expected to keep him out for the regular season and on long-term injured reserve helped the Lightning avoid trading key players to become cap compliant. So with mostly everyone back, there’s an added focus on just getting to the playoffs, when Kucherov is expected to be back.
“Are we missing a key part of our team?” Cooper said. “There’s no doubt. But the player only plays 20 minutes (a game), and there’s other guys out there that can hopefully fill in. So maybe the growth of our team coming in now is that’s a little bit of a reset for us, and we have to refocus on a different way that we have to play the game.”
NHL Network analyst Ken Daneyko was part of three Stanley Cup-winning teams with the Devils from 1994-2003. In 2000-01, New Jersey was one win from claiming back-to-back Cups, holding a three-games-to-two lead over Colorado before the Avalanche came back to win the Cup.
“I remember how devastated we were, because you don’t realize at the time, to win back-to-back is special. And especially in today’s day and age with the competitive balance even stronger than in my time, it’s hard,” Daneyko said. “It’s hard to repeat, but when you get that taste, you want it back.”
Daneyko’s first Cup came during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season. The following season, the Devils missed out on the playoffs by two points, eliminated on the final day of the regular season. In a shortened season with every game against their division opponents, Daneyko said, the Lightning’s focus has to be on simply getting back to the postseason.
“For Tampa, it’s not about coming in first place, although they may, because they’re that good,” Daneyko said. “But it’s about getting in, and then come playoff time, the advantage you have is you’ve tasted it, you’ve been there, you know what it takes.”
Lightning wing Alex Killorn said there shouldn’t be any letdown or lack of motivation. After feeling the exhilaration of winning the Cup once, players want to do it again. They already have their place in history. Their names are engraved on the Cup. Now they have the opportunity to write another chapter.
Killorn looks at teammate Pat Maroon, who has won back-to-back Cups, in 2019 with the Blues and last year with the Lightning. That’s the legacy Killorn wants to create for himself and his teammates.
“The way I look at it is that I know a lot of guys have won the Cup. I don’t know many that have won two. Why not be one of those guys?” Killorn said.
“We’ve got one in our dressing room, and when he walks around, everyone knows him as a two-Cup guy, and we’re the one-Cup guys. I think for us, we know we can do it. Now that we’ve been there, you’re even more hungry to get another.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.