The Tampa Bay Lightning eschewed tradition after Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, surrounding NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and hockey’s Holy Grail as a team rather than having it handed off to captain Steven Stamkos alone. The result resembled a jubilant class portrait on the last day of school.
The last five years were a harsh education for this group. Their 2-0 victory to eliminate the Dallas Stars, capture the Stanley Cup and officially pop the NHL playoff bubble was their graduation.
In order to raise the Stanley Cup, the Lightning had to lean how not to fumble it away.
“Once you get to the playoffs, the difference in talent between the teams is minimal. It really does come down to resiliency. Taking advantage of the breaks that you get along the way, and overcoming the ones that go against you,” said Lightning GM Julien BriseBois. “Once you have a good enough team to get into the playoffs, it comes down to who is going to find a way.”
Here’s how the Lightning came to understand that this is the way, and how Game 6 became their graduation as champions.
Freshman Year: Losing in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final
Nine Lightning players who skated with the Cup on Monday night all share the same wound.
“This is going to leave a scar, there’s no doubt,” said coach Jon Cooper on June 15, 2015, the night the Lightning were eliminated in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final by the Chicago Blackhawks.
After their second straight 100-point season, with 50 wins, this was the first postseason in which the Lightning were met with real championship contender hype. Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson were 24. Ondrej Palat was 23. Nikita Kucherov was 21, while goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was just 20, playing four games in that run.
“We’ve got a group of young men in there, but they’re kids at heart,” Cooper said, “and they’re crushed.”
For this class, the Blackhawks were the perfect professors. They were once the young team with enormous expectations, and it took them a conference finals loss to figure out how to win their first Stanley Cup of the Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane reign in 2010. The 2015 victory over the Lightning was the third championship of their salary cap-era dynasty.
The first lesson was about efficiency. The Lightning lost the Final that season with their tanks completely drained. “The margin of teams is so close. It’s the healthy ones that seem to advance. I think we stayed somewhat healthy. Then down the stretch things started not going our way in that department,” said Cooper, who counted Kucherov among his walking wounded.
The highest-scoring team in the regular season mustered just three goals in its four losses to Chicago, including a shutout in the Cup clincher. The Lightning were bruised, battered and burned-out, having tied an NHL record for most games in a single postseason with 26. Chicago, by contrast, had learned a while ago that the quicker the path, the stronger the finish. The Blackhawks won two series in five games en route to the 2013 Stanley Cup. Before facing the Lightning, they did have a seven-gamer against Anaheim, but preceded that with a sweep of Minnesota.
The second lesson was about how to win in the playoffs. The first five games of the Stanley Cup Final were one-goal affairs. Chicago won three of them by a 2-1 score.
“When this team only gives up two, we win a majority of those games. The pucks just didn’t go in for us. It was a tough time for us to go cold, have the well go dry, especially since we carried this on the whole year,” Cooper said. “There was a lot of fight in the dog, but it just wasn’t enough.”
As we would see in 2020, these lessons would eventually be put into practice.
There was another lesson the Lightning learned in the 2015 Final: That once you get there and lose, you then have a burning desire to get another chance at winning the Stanley Cup.
“The pilot light’s been lit to get back here,” Cooper said.
Of course, it helps if you don’t burn yourself.
Sophomore Year: Blowing the Eastern Conference finals Game 7 — twice
To reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, the Lightning had to win a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden against a New York Rangers team that had won six straight Game 7s. The reason there was a Game 7? Because the Lightning had a chance to win the series in six games, and were blown out at home.
They made the same mistake the following postseason in the Eastern Conference finals, losing at home in Game 6 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then they lost in Game 7 on the road, with Pittsburgh moving on to win the Stanley Cup.
It wasn’t a series the Lightning were expected to win. Goalie Ben Bishop was injured in Game 1 — the world didn’t quite know what the Lightning had in Vasilevskiy yet — and Stamkos was out for the entirety of the playoffs until making an appearance in Game 7, due to a blood clot discovered on March 31.
(Steven Stamkos, injured in the regular season, missing the playoffs until a cameo appearance in the Final. The more things change …)
They still struggled to score that one critical goal and get that one critical defensive stand, but the Lightning had another lesson to learn in this series about staying disciplined when your season is on the line. “Penalties hurt us. It sucked momentum from us,” Cooper said of the six minor penalties the Lightning took in Game 7.
In 2020, the Lightning were among the least-penalized postseason teams, at 4.43 penalties per game.
Of course, the biggest lesson from the Pittsburgh loss: Don’t blow Game 6 in the conference finals with a chance to eliminate your opponent.
They didn’t learn this lesson right away.
In 2018, a year after missing the playoffs — thanks in no small part to a season-ending injury to Stamkos — the Lightning were efficient, winning the first two series of the Eastern Conference playoffs in five games each. They were healthy, with Stamkos and their starting goalie both in the lineup against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference finals. They rallied with three straight wins after losing the first two games at home.
But they lost Game 6, again, this time on the road. The lost Game 7, again, this time back in Tampa.
The lesson this time? That the offensive wizardry that they’re capable of in the regular season isn’t enough to break through against a Stanley Cup-worthy defense. It’s something they should have already learned back in 2015, but once again the highest-scoring team in the league couldn’t put the puck in the net for the last six periods of the series.
“We pressed and pressed and pressed. They got the breaks that they needed, and we didn’t. Over a series, they probably earned those breaks,” Cooper said. “It’s an empty feeling. I feel like we had a good enough team to be where we were. I felt like we could have won every game.”
The lesson Cooper took from this defeat was to drill home a concept to his players in the following season: To learn how to play “the right way” in the playoffs. “We have to win games 2-1, not 5-4,” he said during the 2018-19 season.
The Lightning would eventually learn this lesson. But it would take the one of the most humiliating defeats in Stanley Cup playoffs history to get them to understand it.
Junior Year: The Blue Jackets sweep
Mortification is a heck of a motivator, and there’s really no other way to describe the Lightning’s reaction to getting swept out of the playoffs last season by the No. 8 seed Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round.
Their primary excuse for the disaster was, famously, that they were a victim of their own success: That the Lightning’s 62-win, 128-point regular season — earning them a share of the all-time record for wins in a single season — put them in a position where they didn’t have anything to play for leading up to the playoffs, while the Blue Jackets had played de facto playoff games for weeks just to get in.
“When you have the amount of points we had, it’s a blessing and a curse, in a way. You don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time. Then all of a sudden you have to ramp it up. It’s not an excuse; it’s reality,” Cooper said after Game 4. “That’s how it goes: You have a historic regular season and we had a historic playoff.”
There have always been two ways to read this. One is that it’s hard to flip the switch for playoff intensity, something that informed the NHL’s decision to give higher seeds the “round robin” in the bubble rather than a bye. The other is the absurdity of the best team in hockey being unable to adapt to getting punched in the mouth by an inferior opponent, which is what happened when the Lightning blew a 3-0 lead in Game 1. They faced adversity and they fell apart. They didn’t have the players to get them back on track after the Jackets derailed them.
This was the “come to hockey Jesus” moment that Cooper needed to finally send a message that had been sitting in his outbox for five years. This was the moment that Lightning management needed to make the necessary personnel changes to “play the right way.”
GM Steve Yzerman left in 2018 to become the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings. Julien BriseBois, whom Yzerman hired as his assistant in 2010, was named the new general manager in September 2018. Together they had built a core of players that was the envy of the NHL, through smart drafting, shrewd trades and yes, a commitment to analytics. They were the envy of the league not just for their talent, but for the management of their salary-cap space — something many attributed to the lack of state income tax in Florida.
The catastrophic loss to the Blue Jackets would have shaken the faith of a less confident franchise. Cooper was safe, having just signed an extension in March of that season. But would BriseBois slice into the core of the team, performing an autopsy to find out what happened to its heart?
He would not. In fact, he opted for a heart transplant.
Enter Patrick Maroon as a free-agent forward, fresh off a Stanley Cup win with St. Louis. Enter veteran puck-moving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, hungry for his first Cup and eager to mend his reputation after a buyout from the Rangers. At the trade deadline, BriseBois sent first-round picks to the Devils and Sharks for forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, respectively. Trades that were seen at the time as overpayment are now praised as genius, as those two paired with Yanni Gourde to form arguably the playoffs’ most effective checking line. Maroon and Shattenkirk paid off, too: For example, the “Big Rig” eclipsed Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin to allow Shattenkirk to beat him on the power play in overtime of Game 5.
In this way, the Lightning were reminiscent of the Cup-winning 2018 Capitals team. GM George McPhee built the core with assistant GM Brian MacLellan as his right hand. McPhee was fired in 2014. MacLellan took over, and eventually found the right veteran additions to augment that core and transform the Capitals into champions: players like Lars Eller, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and others.
Like MacLellan was with the Caps, no one was more familiar with his team than BriseBois. He knew what the Lightning needed. He sought it out. He set them up for a championship.
Let’s be absolutely clear: The Lightning wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup this season had they not been humbled by the Blue Jackets last season. It transformed them, from their philosophy about playoff hockey to the literal makeup of the team. It’s the second time John Tortorella brought a Stanley Cup to Tampa, in a roundabout way.
But to capture the title, the Lightning would need to spend their final year abroad.
Senior Year: The Bubble
Perhaps this is what the Lightning needed to break through: To be hermetically sealed into a quarantine bubble, first in Toronto and then in Edmonton, because of COVID-19. No fans in the building to create that extra bit of tension that would cause the Lightning to snap. No media crowding their locker room to ask about playoff disappointments, as they were relegated to Zoom chats. No travel. No family begging for tickets. No distractions. Just hockey, and each other.
“You don’t get to see some of these milestones in your kids’ life and your wife’s life. Those are the tough parts. That’s why, if we can pull this off, that will make it all that much more rewarding,” Cooper said.
Of course, the first game of that Columbus series was a five-overtime classic that the Lightning managed to win. Had they lost … well, one wonders.
The New York Islanders took six tough games to dispatch, with the last two games both 2-1 scores and both going to overtime.
The Lightning were 6-2 in overtimes. They were 9-3 in one-goal games.
They were 10-0 when leading after two periods. They were 12-1 when scoring the first goal of the game.
As BriseBois noted, even with the best playoff education, you need a break or two to succeed. The Lightning were beat up by the end of the playoffs, but were able to keep Brayden Point and Kucherov in the lineup. Dallas, by contrast, was missing a handful of valuable supporting players by the end of the Final. Obviously, having Stamkos in the lineup is much better than not having him, but it’s not as if this group didn’t know how to play with him out of action.
(The plight of Stamkos through these past five seasons is truly exasperating, as one of the most gifted goal scorers of his generation was faced with all manner and sort of health calamity. But it is worth asking if, during this postseason run, there wasn’t a little bit of the “Patrick Ewing Theory” going on here — as coined by Bill Simmons — wherein a team loses a superstar player and that paradoxically leads to greater team success.)
The past five years were an education, but every round of the Lightning’s 2020 postseason was part of a larger lesson plan. Maybe if they hadn’t had to fight through the defense and goaltending of the Blue Jackets, Bruins and Islanders, then the Stars would have found a way to frustrate them in the Stanley Cup Final, just as Dallas caught the Vegas Golden Knights off guard in the Western Conference finals. But the Lightning were more than prepared to break down the Khudobin wall.
It took five years, but the Tampa Bay Lightning finally learned these lessons. They’ve been a franchise of unequaled hype and expectations, a team whose success has transformed Tampa into one of the NHL’s most rabid hockey markets. They’re a team of star players who had watched from home as so many of their peers lifted the Stanley Cup. They were a roster constructed meticulously to win a Cup this season, deferring any salary-cap pain and difficult personnel decisions to the offseason.
And now they’re the 2020 Stanley Cup champions.