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End of year review: Lord Stanley spends another summer in Tampa Bay

The Lightning begin a jam-packed July with a second Stanley Cup, two Tampa Bay athletes win gold medals in the Tokyo Olympics and the Rays make a bold move.
Yes, we could get used to this in Tampa Bay. The Lightning celebrated their second consecutive Stanley Cup (and their third in 17 years) with a 1-0 shutout victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 on July 7, 2021 in Tampa.
Yes, we could get used to this in Tampa Bay. The Lightning celebrated their second consecutive Stanley Cup (and their third in 17 years) with a 1-0 shutout victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 on July 7, 2021 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 26, 2021

TAMPA — In the beginning, they were prodigies. Young, precocious, exceptionally talented hockey players. They skated fast, won often and left the echo of applause in their wake.

Later, they were disappointments. Irretrievably identified with bitter, unexpected and spectacularly public letdowns.

Finally, they were champions.

This is the story of your Tampa Bay Lightning. Their years-long journey of promise and fulfillment led to a Stanley Cup in the bubble in Edmonton in 2020. And then, as if to bring the journey full circle, they won a second championship at Amalie Arena with a 1-0 victory against Montreal in Game 5 on July 7.

Make no mistake, the second title was different from the first. The initial championship, which culminated against Dallas in the final, felt as if it was part of a career-long crusade. It was vindication, and it was relief.

Related: End of year review in Tampa Bay: A Wander-ful addition for Tampa Bay

And the second one? That was pure energy and emotion. It was Steven Stamkos getting to take part after missing so much of the championship run in 2020. It was Alex Killorn trying to finish a game on a broken leg and having a rod surgically inserted in a crazed attempt to get back before the final series ended. It was Nikita Kucherov playing the entire finals with a cracked rib. It was Ryan McDonagh and Barclay Goodrow playing with broken hands. It was Victor Hedman skating the final three months of the season on a knee that was in desperate need of surgery.

“That’s how you win the Stanley Cup,” teary-eyed general manager Julien BriseBois said a day later, referring to Killorn and the other injured players.

The series against Montreal was anticlimactic, but that was fine. The Lightning had weathered enough road blocks along the way that a near sweep in the final was a welcome coda.

The five-game showdown with the Canadiens — with three of the victories at Amalie Arena — a jubilant, fitting celebration for a team that had waited so long to skate victory laps with the Stanley Cup in front of its own fans.

A golden summer in Tampa Bay

Bobby Finke poses after winning the gold medal in the men's 1500-meter freestyle final at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Bobby Finke poses after winning the gold medal in the men's 1500-meter freestyle final at the 2020 Summer Olympics. [ GREGORY BULL | Associated Press ]

It took a lifetime of preparation, and an extra year of waiting due to the pandemic, but Clearwater’s Bobby Finke made his mark on the world stage during the Tokyo Olympics. Finke, a Countryside High graduate and senior at the University of Florida, won swimming gold in both the 800 and 1,500 meter freestyle races. Finke passed three swimmers in the final laps of the 800, shaving six seconds off his personal best.

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“I had no idea I was going to do that,” Finke said. “I noticed with 10 meters off (the final turn) I was catching a little bit of ground, and that was the only motivation I needed.”

Related: Gold medalist Bobby Finke reflects on ‘emotional’ first Olympics

A golden summer in Tampa Bay, part II

Anastasija Zolotic holds her gold medal during a ceremony for the taekwondo women's 57kg at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Anastasija Zolotic holds her gold medal during a ceremony for the taekwondo women's 57kg at the 2020 Summer Olympics. [ THEMBA HADEBE | Associated Press ]

Put in a taekwondo class at age 5 by her father, Largo’s Anastasija Zolotic became the best in the world a little more than a dozen years later. Zolotic won the first gold medal of the Tokyo Olympics by a U.S. athlete when she beat Russian Tatiana Minina 25-17 to win the featherweight division.

“My 8-year-old self was running around the school yard saying I was going to be Olympic champion, but she could never have imagined what this moment is like,” Zolotic said. “It’s unbelievable. It really hasn’t sunk in yet.”

Related: Largo’s Anastasija Zolotic: dark horse turned shining gold medalist

Tampa Bay is the Delta House of trophy celebrations

It wasn’t as dramatic as Tom Brady throwing the Lombardi Trophy from one boat to another, but the Stanley Cup had its own celebratory mishap during the Lightning parade and party. A photo of an obviously dented Stanley Cup showed up on social media, and Pat Maroon fessed up a day later in a radio interview.

“It was obviously raining, and it was wet,” Maroon said. “I went to lift it, and I went backwards with it. I slipped, and (Cup keeper) Phil (Pritchard) helped me up and the Cup went back on its end. People are saying we disrespected the Cup. Such BS … it was a complete accident.”

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

Thin air and long drives make Alonso a star again

The National League's Pete Alonso, of the New York Mets, hits during the first round of the MLB All Star baseball Home Run Derby.
The National League's Pete Alonso, of the New York Mets, hits during the first round of the MLB All Star baseball Home Run Derby. [ GABRIEL CHRISTUS | Associated Press ]

Fans seem to enjoy baseball’s Home Run Derby even more than the All-Star Game, and that makes Tampa’s Pete Alonso one of MLB’s star attractions. The Plant High graduate joined Ken Griffey Jr. and Yoenis Cespedes as the only players to win back-to-back derby titles. Alonso hit a total of 74 homers and beat Trey Mancini 23-22 in the final round in Colorado on July 12.

Words to remember

“Mike Trout was selected for the All-Star Game, but he can’t come. So they wanted the next-best player in the league: Joey Wendle.” Rays manager Kevin Cash, humorously announcing Wendle’s spot on the All-Star team to his players.

Related: End of year review in Tampa Bay: Getting feisty in April

• • •

“We went from new kids on the block to that in 2015, when it’s ‘These guys are so much fun to watch, they’re going to be back again,’ to all of a sudden it gets tilted and now we’re the team that can’t get it done to now you’re throwing the word dynasty around. And so that’s a huge wave of emotions in a seven-year, six-year span to go through, but this core went through it together.” Lightning coach Jon Cooper after the Lightning won a second Stanley Cup.

• • •

President Joe Biden listens to Bucs quarterback Tom Brady speak during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House.
President Joe Biden listens to Bucs quarterback Tom Brady speak during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House. [ MANUEL BALCE CENETA | Associated Press ]

“We had a game in Chicago where I forgot what down it was. I lost track of one down in 21 years of playing, and they started calling me ‘Sleepy Tom.’ Why would they do that to me?” Tom Brady, taking a light-hearted jab at President Joe Biden during the Bucs’ Super Bowl ceremony at the White House.

• • •

“No. 1 bulls--t.” Nikita Kucherov delicately explaining that Andrei Vasilevskiy should have won the Vezina Trophy.

On second thought

Nelson Cruz watches his solo home run in the third inning of a July 23 game in Cleveland.
Nelson Cruz watches his solo home run in the third inning of a July 23 game in Cleveland. [ TONY DEJAK | Associated Press ]

It was the right trade, but the wrong outcome. The Rays always talk about the need to keep one eye on the present and another on the future, but on July 22 they went for broke by trading for designated hitter Nelson Cruz.

The price was high — pitching prospects Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman — but the Rays had a return trip to the World Series in mind. Tampa Bay would go on to win 100 games, but Cruz’s contributions on the field were minimal. He hit .226 with eight homers in 55 games. He hit .176 in the postseason.

• • •

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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