TAMPA — For the moment, forget the scoreboard.
The final result — LIGHTNING 1, ISLANDERS 0 — belongs to history, anyway.
Instead, ponder the journey. That’s the real story. There’s your true joy. For the wonder of this night is the story of a team that constantly catches you by surprise. Every time you think you could not be more impressed by the Lightning’s depth, they dig just a little bit deeper.
Two nights after one-time MVP Nikita Kucherov was feared to have been knocked out of the series, 48 hours after they blew a 2-0 lead and lost in overtime of Game 6, the Lightning came back to win a Game 7 for the first time in six years.
Just as impressively, the team that suffered the most humiliating first-round loss in NHL history in 2019 has now won seven consecutive postseason series and has yet to lose back-to-back games during that entire 40-game stretch.
“It took a lot to get here,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “The heartbreak in 2015, getting all the way to the final and losing. And then 2016 going to Game 7 against Pitt and losing that one. And then 2018 against Barry Trotz coaching (Washington), he beat us in Game 7 in this building. Then the heartbreak to Columbus in 2019. It was all building blocks to get to here.
“Look, we haven’t won the Stanley Cup this year, we’re chasing it just like Montreal is. But to be down to the final two in back-to-back years, it’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment.”
So how do you like us now, America?
If you’re counting, a sports market that is routinely ridiculed nationally has now participated in two Stanley Cup finals, a Super Bowl and a World Series in the past 10 months. To put that in perspective, Lightning, Bucs and Rays fans had seen that exact same number of Stanley Cup finals, Super Bowls and World Series in the previous 10 decades.
Tampa Bay’s return to the Stanley Cup Final — which begins at home against Montreal on Monday night — should not be taken lightly. In recent years, no other sport has been as hard on its champions as the NHL. Since 2001, only two teams have managed to win a Stanley Cup, then get back to the finals the following season. That’s two out of the last 17. And the now the Lightning are the third.
What’s so amazing is that the Lightning have rewritten their history. Once upon a time, this was a team that could be rattled. A team that was best known for how quickly it could be toppled from its high horse.
For five seasons, from 2015-19, no team in the NHL won more regular-season games than the Lightning. Yet they had little to show for it, other than a penchant for blowing leads late in the playoffs.
Something remarkable emerged from all of that heartache. An imperfect team with a perfect sense of timing. For the past two seasons, every stumble has been answered by a team that has stood tall.
“Guys are playing through so much at this time of the year. It’s just amazing to see the effort that everyone puts in,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “The way the guys stuck with it after a tough loss last game, giving up a couple-goal lead. We just stuck with the plan and you get rewarded for the effort.”
Since their Game 2 loss to the Blue Jackets in the first round of 2020, the Lightning have gone 12-0 following a defeat. The team that once defined collapses has become the team that refuses to yield.
It would be easy to dismiss the Lightning as a team of stars. The dominant team of its era. But that characterization misses the very ingredient that turned the tide. The addition of a series of blue collar players has changed the personality of a team that used to rely on skating and scoring.
“You have to have a team that can win both ways,” Cooper said. “You have to be able to defend and we’ve been doing that the last couple of years.”
The only penalty of the game came two minutes into the second period when Barclay Goodrow cross-checked Adam Pelech on a play that was reminiscent of Scott Mayfield’s hit on Kucherov that went uncalled in Game 6. And for a moment, it felt like the hockey gods were mocking the Lightning.
Then karma stepped in.
New York’s power play led to Tampa Bay’s shorthanded goal with Ryan McDonagh intercepting a pass deep in the Lightning zone before hitting Alex Killorn at mid-ice. Killorn sent the puck to Anthony Cirelli who passed it between Josh Bailey’s legs to Yanni Gourde who drilled the back of the net.
And so the Lightning move on. Again.
And Tampa Bay celebrates. Again.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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