Three Peats in Sight, Tampa Bay Lightning Face – Tough Test

DENVER. For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the last minutes were ticking along with the dream of hockey immortality. Winners of the last two Stanley Cups, the Lightning lost to the talented Toronto Maple Leafs with a goal late in the third period of last month’s first-round elimination game.

If the Lightning hadn’t been able to find a way to score in the last 11 minutes of Game 6, their quest to become the first team in almost 40 years to win three titles in a row would have collapsed.

But, thanks to a pair of well-placed penalties and a powerplay goal by Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay forced Tampa Bay into overtime. From that point on, the Lightning led 10-2 and won three playoff series, reclaiming the trio’s pursuit.

“That’s why a game lasts 60 minutes and a streak is seven games,” said Mikhail Sergachev, the astute Tampa Bay defenseman. “You never know when it will happen. But it’s coming.”

For three years now, the Lightning has continued to advance, and no one can stop them. Now it’s the Colorado Avalanche’s turn.

On Wednesday in Denver, Tampa Bay will play the Avalanche in the first game of the first straight Stanley Cup final since the sport was shut down in March 2020 due to the coronavirus. If the Lightning can find a way to win, they will become the first team to win three matches in a row. Stanley Cup champions since the Islanders won four in a row from 1980 to 1983.

“They have a lot of interesting things,” said Gabriel Landeskog, 29-year-old captain of the Colorado. “But so do we.

Tampa Bay’s first title in this series came against the Dallas Stars in 2020. It was played in September, instead of June, in the so-called bubble in Edmonton, Alberta with no fans due to pandemic restrictions. Last year, the Lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens in the Finals after a season in which the divisions were changed to restrict border crossings between the US and Canada. When the final games were played in Montreal, attendance was limited to 3,500 fans.

The NHL has almost returned to normal this year. The most normal thing, perhaps, is that Tampa Bay is still playing. The amazing Lightning have won 11 consecutive playoff series, the third most of any team. (The Islanders won 19 straight series from 1980 to 1984, and the Canadiens won 13 straight from 1976 to 1980.)

Winning two titles in a row is no mean feat, having only happened twice since the Edmonton Oilers did it in 1987 and 1988. The Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998, while the Pittsburgh Penguins won back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017.

Having been there and done so, Tampa Bay is not shy about speculating about why it was so difficult to catch a third.

“One of the things we’re talking about not only this year but the year before is why other teams don’t go back there,” said John Cooper, who has been coaching the Lightning since 2013 and helped them get through this wonderful series. “Is it enough that your name appeared on the Cup, you exhaled and everything is fine, you will get several retakes for the next couple of years?”

With two championship titles, the Lightning players could breathe in the last 10 minutes against Toronto. They could take a retake after losing two games to zero in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Rangers and no longer required the extra effort each shift needed to win at the highest level.

Similar thoughts of satisfaction and surrender could confuse other successful teams as they approached the roadblocks on their way to the trio. So far, Lightning has chosen a path that leads straight to their dynastic ambitions.

“It took so long to get here,” Cooper said. “Why not continue? It was a big deal for us that left its mark on history.”

Winning three titles in a row has actually happened before this century, at least for an individual. If any of the members of the Lightning are interested in knowing what it takes, they just need to turn to teammate striker Pat Maroon.

Maroon won the 2019 Stanley Cup with St. Louis Blues then signed with the Lightning as a free agent. If he wins again this year, he will become the 45th player to win four Cups in a row and the only active player to do so.

“It’s just crazy for me that I’m going through this again,” Maroon said. “I’m very lucky and lucky to be a part of it.”

Conversely, last year’s victory over Montreal came at the expense of Corey Perry, now a member of the Lightning. Perry was a kind of foil for Maroon’s uncanny success. Perry, 37, is playing in his third straight final. But he lost the last two with the Stars and then the Canadiens.

“You play this game to win,” Perry said. “You don’t play just to get here. That’s what keeps me going.”

At least he won the Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. But now the growing Avalanche stands in his way. Colorado will be the best team Tampa Bay has faced in three years, said Tampa Bay veteran forward Alex Killorn. With players like center Nathan McKinnon and defenseman Cale Makar both in the top 20 in regular season scoring, the Avalanche have the talent and depth that rivals Tampa Bay have lacked in previous Finals.

At some point, the Lightnings will most likely find themselves behind in the game or in the series. They may again ask themselves whether to exhale and agree or add to their greatness. For Cooper, his players have already shown an irresistible desire to stamp the Lightning Bolt on hockey history.

“In the Toronto Series, when we were down 3-2 and there was no tomorrow,” Cooper said, “we were given two more months of tomorrow.”