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Lightning bring focus, experience to chase for three-peat

It has been almost 40 years since a team won a third straight Stanley Cup. “There’s a lot of things that have to fall into place.”
Captain Steven Stamkos hoists the Stanley Cup as fans and teammates cheer following the Lightning's victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 of the final in July at Amalie Arena.
Captain Steven Stamkos hoists the Stanley Cup as fans and teammates cheer following the Lightning's victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 of the final in July at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Oct. 7

TAMPA — When Lightning coach Jon Cooper gathered his team on the first day of training camp — with some new faces and notable ones absent — he brought up two dates many in the room remember: Sept. 28, 2020, and July 7, 2021.

Those are the dates the Lightning won the past two Stanley Cups.

Cooper told his players those are when the Lightning felt the thrill of hoisting the Cup but the work it took to capture it started months earlier away from the cheering crowd, sweating through practices like the one that day.

“You look at how many teams have strung three in a row in the 100-plus years of this league, and there’s not many,” Cooper said later that day. “Not many teams get a chance to do it, and we have a chance to do it.

“Now, are we winning a Stanley Cup standing here on Sept. 23? We’re not, and there’s months of work ahead of us. But we are chasing history. There’s definitely a pretty nice-sized carrot ahead of us. So I would not expect our guys to be short on motivation.”

‘Mind-blowing’ accomplishment

Lightning players and staff celebrate in 2020 after winning the Stanley Cup in six games agains the Dallas Stars at Rogers Place  in Edmonton, Alberta.
Lightning players and staff celebrate in 2020 after winning the Stanley Cup in six games agains the Dallas Stars at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta. [ MARKO DITKUN | Special to the Times ]

The Lightning can accomplish something this season that many of hockey’s greatest teams haven’t. Only three franchises have won at least three consecutive Stanley Cups; two of them — the Maple Leafs and Canadiens — have done it more than once. It hasn’t happened since the Islanders won four straight from 1980-83.

In the 2010s, the Blackhawks won three championships in six years. The great Oilers teams of the 1980s won five in seven seasons. But neither won three in a row.

Since the NHL adopted the salary cap to create competitive balance in 2005, no team has won three straight Cups.

“It would be mind-blowing if they’re able to accomplish that,” said former NHL goaltender (including with the Lightning from 2000-02) and current ESPN analyst Kevin Weekes. “There’s a lot of things that have to fall into place. You need great health. You need peak-level motivation. You need to manufacture that intensity. There can’t be any complacency. Right now, all of those different things have to come into play, and then also you need some luck.”

Lightning TV analyst Brian Engblom was part of a Canadiens dynasty that won four straight Stanley Cups from 1976-79. He said it was easier to win back then because there were fewer teams (21 in 1979, compared with 32 this season) and players didn’t move much between teams.

“You had to have a bit of turnover, not as much as there is now with the salary cap, and you didn’t have players moving around in free agency very much,” Engblom said. “It’s a totally different era right now. Players are bouncing around all over. They’re getting the best deal they can. (Teams) owned you then. You moved when they wanted to move you probably 95 percent of the time, not like now, so a lot of circumstances are different.”

Keeping the core intact

Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov, left, and center Brayden Point are one of the league’s most exciting scoring combinations.
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov, left, and center Brayden Point are one of the league’s most exciting scoring combinations. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Lightning were able to keep their title-winning roster together last season using long-term injured reserve. They had to make the playoffs without top scorer Nikita Kucherov, who had offseason hip surgery and missed the regular season, but he was available for the entirety of their postseason run. Though they used long-term injured reserve again this offseason to become cap compliant, they still had to let go of four core pieces. Yanni Gourde was lost in the expansion draft, Blake Coleman to free agency, and Barclay Goodrow and Tyler Johnson in trades.

“Our identity has always been based on pace, being hard to play against and pushing the pace,” general manager Julien BriseBois said. “So we try to bring in players that can complement that through various ways. It could be through skating, through thinking, through skill, through compete, fitness level, but we don’t want to lose our identity.”

The Lightning have been good at getting players to fit their needs, such as when BriseBois traded for Coleman and Goodrow at the 2020 deadline. This offseason, they signed veterans Corey Perry and Pierre Edouard-Bellemare to help fill roles, and they’ve already fit in seamlessly.

Related: Nikita Kucherov may be best example of Lightning’s motivation to win three straight

“I’m sure there’s situations where it really hasn’t worked,” Cooper said. “We’ve been in a good situation where it has, and that’s a credit to Julien and his scouting staff that they’ve done their homework on these players. As a coaching staff, you have a wish list, and then management has to go and get those guys and see if they’re going to fit with us, and it’s worked out.”

Ultimately, the Lightning have kept most of their core group intact. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was arguably the team’s MVP throughout last season and showed that in the postseason by winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. Perennial Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman is healthy again after playing through injury last season, and Kucherov and Brayden Point are one of the league’s most exciting scoring combinations.

“We look at our goalie, we look at our defense, our top six forwards, our power play,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “Things like that have all stayed the same. That’s what gives us a lot of optimism heading into this year.

“You dream of winning a Cup, but you never dream of winning multiple Cups or being the captain of that team. It’s been an amazing ride so far, and once you get that feeling, you want more, and I think we proved that last year that we can go out and do it again, and that’s the goal this year.”

Finding their motivation

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77), who played with a torn meniscus during the playoffs, works to make a play between two Canadiens defenseman during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final in July.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77), who played with a torn meniscus during the playoffs, works to make a play between two Canadiens defenseman during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final in July. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

A few seasons ago, the Lightning were a team that chased fleeting accolades. They wanted to be the best, and they thought leading the regular-season standings and trying to score more than anyone else were part of that. It wasn’t until they bought into being dependable at both ends of the ice, to each other in the locker room and to the greater goal of improving as a group as the season progressed that they became a championship team.

“I think it became their motivation,” Engblom said, “more than being in first place, like two years ago and before that. They were like, ‘Let’s go. We want to be the best; we always strive to win.’ But I think it becomes a little more, ‘We know ourselves, and we know what the process is. Let’s not kid ourselves in November or in January, nor in April about who we are and where our game is.’ They have that experience of knowing they are kidding themselves.”

The story of last year’s Cup run was the sacrifice players showed down the stretch, playing through injuries. Hedman had a torn meniscus for three months. Alex Killorn broke a leg in the Stanley Cup final and had a rod placed in it with the hope he could return. Kucherov played the final six games of the postseason with a cracked rib. Numerous others played through pain.

Related: How to cope with fatigue and burnout? Winning certainly helps

“It’s the effort level and the willingness to sacrifice and play the game the way it’s played in the playoffs, which means it’s way more intense, which means even when you’re hurting and you don’t feel good, you still have to do it,” Engblom said. “And then when you do it, your teammates appreciate it, because they’re the ones that know exactly what you’re going through.”

The Lightning won two Cups under extraordinary circumstances: one in a bubble in Canada following a four-month break in the season because of the coronavirus and the other after a shortened 56-game season and regionalized division realignment in which they played the same seven teams in the regular season and then two of those teams in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Winning a third straight Cup during a traditional 82-game regular season will be a new challenge.

“You get the grind of the full schedule, but I think that’s also compounded by the fact that they’ve won two (straight Cups),” Weekes said. “And then in addition to that, you’re getting everybody’s best. You’re not sneaking in anywhere.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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