TAMPA — Exactly nine months ago, the Lightning got their first taste.
Inside an empty arena in Edmonton, another country and more than 4,500 miles from Tampa, they ended their 65 days in the NHL’s playoff bubble drinking bubbly from the Stanley Cup.
For many in a core group that had been together for years, it was the culmination of a journey with numerous ups and downs while wearing a bolt on their chest, ending with a championship under the most unusual of circumstances during a pandemic.
The feeling was euphoric, the realization of boyhood dreams, and one this group had worked so hard to finally attain.
But it wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper has talked about it a lot over the course of his team’s run to its second Stanley Cup final, which begins Monday at Amalie Arena: “If you win one Cup, are you full? Or are you still hungry?”
Hunger can’t be quantified. There’s no statistic that shows how far a team’s drive can take it. But after experiencing the thrill of victory — a postgame celebration followed by a boat parade down the Hillsborough River and an offseason with the Cup in Tampa — the Lightning was motivated to get that feeling back.
“It’s all well and good to one day put on your gravestone that you won a Stanley Cup,” Cooper said following the Lightning’s Game 7 semifinal win over the Islanders. “But to be able to do it two years in a row, multiple times, you’re talking about, now your team is special and years down the road they say, ‘Well, that Tampa team during some time was a hell of a team.’ I think you can really put a stamp on that if you win another one.”
It’s not easy to get back to the top, especially in today’s salary-cap era that forces rosters to change every season. Since the cap was first put into effect for the 2005-06 season, only one team has won back-to-back Cups: the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and ’17.
The Lightning’s championship season didn’t come until it had first experienced heartbreak: a Cup final loss to Chicago in 2015, Game 7 Eastern Conference final losses to Pittsburgh in 2016 and Washington in 2018, and a Presidents’ Trophy-winning regular season that ended with an abrupt first-round sweep by Columbus.
“There’s no doubt that today, those experiences are part of our baggage,” Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said. “We can draw on those experiences to prepare for our games, we can adjust along the way. They made us better. But to be honest, I would have preferred winning the Cup (in 2015) and not losing in four in 2019. But those challenges made us better.”
They also made finally winning the Cup more satisfying. It is the most special trophy in sports, and during their days with it, Lightning players and coaches were in awe of the Cup, its history and their place in it.
“I think we just used that experience that we had last year in terms of fulfilling your ultimate dream of winning the Stanley Cup and realizing how amazing that feeling is and knowing how hard it was to accomplish that,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “That was one of the first thoughts for a lot of the guys when we had the Cup ... It was like, ‘I can’t wait to do this again,’”
Yes, the Lightning have a loaded roster — critics point to the fact they took advantage of Nikita Kucherov’s hip surgery to place him on long-term injured reserve to help meet the $81.5 million flat cap and avoid roster restructuring — but they also overcame their share of obstacles.
They played the entire regular season without their top player in Kucherov and lost Stamkos for the final five weeks of the regular season. They had to adhere to strict coronavirus protocols that restricted them to the team hotel, arena and practice facility on the road. Regionalized division realignment limited them to playing the same seven teams throughout an abbreviated 56-game schedule. And as reigning champs, they got every opponent’s best game.
The Lightning opened the season inside an empty Amalie Arena, coming out to the lyrics of Jay-Z for every pregame warmup — Can I get an encore? Do you want more? — and will play in front of 14,800 fans for Game 1 for Monday’s Game 1.
“What we experienced last year is something that you want to experience again,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “This group is super special. The regular season was kind of up and down. It was a tough season playing against the same teams over and over again, but the closer we got to the playoffs, it felt like our game really came together and then the playoffs started and it was just like we picked up where we left off last postseason.”
The Lightning have one more round to make history, and it will be against a Canadiens team that’s looking to blaze its own path with its first trip to the final in 28 years, in a similar spot to Tampa Bay six seasons ago. The Lightning will have to continue to stay hungry.
“You can’t predict that it’s going to happen,” Cooper said. “But that’s what the vision of everybody in this organization was, knowing that we could do this. And 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.”
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