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End of year review in Tampa Bay: The Kuch comeback!

After going 229 days without playing a competitive game of hockey, Nikita Kucherov makes a splash in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs against Florida.
Lightning fans celebrate after Nikita Kucherov (86) scores a power-play goal, his second of the game, during Game 1 of the first-round playoff series against the Florida Panthers on May 16 at BB&T Center in Sunrise.
Lightning fans celebrate after Nikita Kucherov (86) scores a power-play goal, his second of the game, during Game 1 of the first-round playoff series against the Florida Panthers on May 16 at BB&T Center in Sunrise. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 24, 2021

2021 was certainly an eventful year for Florida sports, especially in Tampa Bay. Columnist John Romano is looking back at the year that was, one month at a time.

By the end of the postseason, the story had become twisted. A bitter accusation of villainous motives and unsportsmanlike schemes.

In other towns — markets where the NHL teams were put to rest early — the tale of Nikita Kucherov’s 2021 season was a conspiracy theorist’s delight.

Around here, you see it differently. You see Willis Reed limping off the bench in the 1970 NBA Finals. You see Kirk Gibson rounding the bases on one good knee in the 1988 World Series. You see the most inspirational comeback Tampa Bay has ever known.

Related: End of the year review in Tampa Bay: Historic January playoff run

Kucherov sat out the entire regular season before suiting up for Game 1 of the Lightning’s first-round series against Florida on May 16. And then, 229 days after his last competitive game, Kucherov scored two goals and had an assist in a thrilling 5-4 come-from-behind victory.

“It takes a lot of mental fortitude to be able to work yourself back when you’re not allowed to play 56 straight games,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Man, he hasn’t played in 7½ months. That’s tough. To come out and have the game he did tonight? He deserves it, because I watched the kid work his butt off to get here.”

Related: End of the year review in Tampa Bay: Does the Lombardi Trophy float?

It was only later, when the Lightning finished off the Panthers in six games and began their trek toward another Stanley Cup, that message board warriors began complaining that the Lightning had manipulated the salary cap by hiding Kucherov on long-term injured reserve all season.

Never mind that Kucherov had hip surgery in December. Never mind that his rehab was accelerated compared to some other players. Never mind that other teams used the same long-term injury rule to their salary-cap advantage in past seasons.

The critics had their sinister plot, and the Kucherov narrative was forever darkened.

Who gets custody of the Montreal deal?

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg sits in the stands and talks with fans along the first base line during a game against the Boston Red Sox in July at Tropicana Field.
Rays owner Stuart Sternberg sits in the stands and talks with fans along the first base line during a game against the Boston Red Sox in July at Tropicana Field. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2019) ]

A group of minority owners of the Rays filed a lawsuit against Stu Sternberg, accusing him of a scheme to buy out their shares of the team at below-market value. The lawsuit led St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman to suggest Sternberg consider relinquishing control of the franchise.

Keep an eye out for this young golfer

Sam Burns reacts after making birdie at the No. 16 hole on the Copperhead Course during the final round of the Valspar Championship May 2 at Innisbrook Golf Resort in Palm Harbor.
Sam Burns reacts after making birdie at the No. 16 hole on the Copperhead Course during the final round of the Valspar Championship May 2 at Innisbrook Golf Resort in Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
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Sam Burns, who had blown a Sunday lead twice before in his young career, came from behind in the final round of the Valspar Championship to win his first PGA title in his 76th career start. Burns would go on to finish No. 18 in the FedExCup standings in 2021. “On the putting green when you’re 10, 11 years old and you’re like, ‘I have this putt to win’ whatever tournament, I can remember hitting that putt so many times,” Burns said.

Penalty kicks should not determine a champion

The Florida State women’s soccer team, which won national titles in 2014 and 2018, just missed a third championship when they lost in a penalty shootout to Santa Clara following a 1-1 draw in regulation.

Well, that experiment ended quickly

Yoshi Tsutsugo walks back to the dugout after striking out during a game against the Texas Rangers in April at Tropicana Field. The Rays in May traded Tsutsugo to the Dodgers for cash.
Yoshi Tsutsugo walks back to the dugout after striking out during a game against the Texas Rangers in April at Tropicana Field. The Rays in May traded Tsutsugo to the Dodgers for cash. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Yoshi Tsutsugo saga ended way ahead of schedule in Tampa Bay. The Japanese slugger, who was signed to a 2-year, $12 million deal in the winter of 2019, was designated for assignment after hitting .187 with eight homers, 29 RBIs and a .628 OPS in 77 games over parts of two seasons. After he cleared waivers, he was traded to the Dodgers for cash.

Champa Bay is not limited to the pros

The Bloomingdale High baseball team celebrates after beating Orange Park Fleming Island in the Class 6A championship game on May 22 in Fort Myers.
The Bloomingdale High baseball team celebrates after beating Orange Park Fleming Island in the Class 6A championship game on May 22 in Fort Myers. [ CHUCK FRYE | Special to the Times ]

It was a strong spring for girls prep teams in Tampa Bay. Robinson High completed an undefeated season and won its fifth consecutive Class A flag football state title and Newsome won its first in Class 2A. Canterbury won the Class 2A state championship in softball and Academy of the Holy Names won the Class 3A title. The Bloomingdale boys also got in on the action, winning the Class 6A state baseball championship.

Words to remember

“You can’t create a better human being than what Willy is, and that makes decisions like these especially hard. We’ve watched him grow up in our organization.” Rays general manager Erik Neander after shortstop Willy Adames was traded to Milwaukee to open a spot in the lineup for Wander Franco, who would soon make his Major League debut.

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“I think we realize with these guys coming back, it changes our power play. It changes our first two lines, big time.” Alex Killorn after Steven Stamkos and Kucherov practiced together for the first time all season on May 4.

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“Stick to goaltending.” Bucs tight end Rob Gronkowski after he put on skates following a Lightning practice and blocked a shot by goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.

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“I picked up some scouts once from the Marlins, and they’re looking at me. They’re like, ‘Hey, do you pitch for the Yankees?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I do.’” Rays reliever J.P. Feyereisen, who used to supplement his offseason income as an Uber driver while playing in the minors.

On second thought

Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) is chased by nose tackle Davon Godchaux (92), right, and linebacker Josh Uche (55) during a game against the Patriots on Oct. 3 in Foxborough, Mass.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady (12) is chased by nose tackle Davon Godchaux (92), right, and linebacker Josh Uche (55) during a game against the Patriots on Oct. 3 in Foxborough, Mass. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

When the NFL schedule was released in May, officials told legendary football writer Peter King that the Tampa Bay-New England game was specifically chosen for early in the season to guard against the possibility that Tom Brady would be hurt or the Patriots would bomb. “It’s the game of the year, certainly,” NBC executive Fred Gaudelli said. “It might be the game of many, many years.” Now that the postseason is in sight, a second Bucs-Patriots showdown in the Super Bowl is not entirely farfetched.

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The Tampa Bay Times has commemorated the Lightning’s second consecutive Stanley Cup title with a new hardcover coffee table book, Striking Twice. Order now.

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