Every kid dreams of winning a Stanley Cup.
Doing it once is rare. Twice? Even rarer. consequently? You get the idea.
There’s a reason only two NHL teams won consecutive Stanley Cups in the salary cap era. There’s a reason only three franchises have won three Cups. It’s considered one of the hardest trophies to win in sports, and so many NHL legends never got the chance to do it even once.
But the Tampa Bay Lightning are hoping to join the elite company, and a first round playoff series win against the Toronto Maple Leafs is a good way to get that started.
The matchup saw two teams with much different paths the past few seasons. Tampa Bay, of course, have been unstoppable. The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t made the second round since 2004 and have had numerous Game 7 losses over the past decade.
So, you could say it would have mattered more to the Leafs if they pulled it off, and that the Lightning could have brushed it off given the team’s recent success.
They don’t have to worry about it for now, but don’t mistake them for being any less hungry then the other remaining teams.
“I don’t want anybody to sit here and say ‘Well, is it easier because we won two Cups if the Leafs get the best of us tonight? Is it OK?” coach Jon Cooper said before Game 7. “That’s BS. We’re standing here on the cusp of greatness and why the hell wouldn’t we charge through that door?”
The present is all that matters. And they know that.
Player change. Personnel change. The people that made one win possible might not be back again, might never have a chance again.
Case-in-point: Nick Paul, Tampa’s hero in Game 7 with two goals. In early March, he was playing for a lowly Ottawa Senators team way out of playoff contention. Last spring, he was busy with Canada’s World Championship team. And now he’s fresh off the greatest game of his career, and ever so closer to chasing a Stanley Cup run for the first time in his career.
He didn’t get to taste glory last year. Neither did Corey Perry, who was on the losing side of both of Tampa’s title wins. Heck, even Steven Stamkos didn’t have much to do with 2020.
Beating Toronto is a great start. By many accounts, the Leafs outplayed Tampa, and the Bolts surrendered leads in Game 5 and 6. They recovered in Game 6, but they were one bad bounce away from early elimination.
“We’ve had some failures in the past, and you just have to get over that hump,” Stamkos said. “Sometimes, it becomes mental.”
“Some of the guys, like Paulie, that weren’t here the past couple of years… that’s motivation, let’s get these guys a Cup,” Stamkos said.
And then there’s the legacy aspect. The Lightning have become the league’s model team on how to win in the salary cap era. Sure, there were questions about how they handled things like Nikita Kucherov’s “injury” during the 2020-21 season. But that’s ignoring how well they’ve scouted and found gems to build a deep lineup year after year.
And they’re not about to just give up. They’re going for it again.
The Lightning haven’t had a ton of adversity over the past two years, but they still had to lose first to know how to win. Remember those 2019 playoffs, the year that Tampa looked unbeatable? Swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Perhaps not playing a perfect series will be exactly what the Lightning needs to springboard another long run.
Tampa Bay will begin its second-round series against Florida next week in what should be a wild rematch of the exciting battle from a year ago. Florida had its own bumps and bruises along the way, having to fight back to beat Washington in six games.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are just getting started. Expect them to do everything they possibly can to chase another Cup, because you never know when you’ll get another chance.