The Lightning players must have thought “Lately, it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.” Sincere apologies to Jerry, Bob and the rest of The Dead. Though, they may have predicted what the Lightning went through. We know where it began. The Sweep. It all starts there. The embarrassment of losing a first round series without a win is bad enough. Coming on the heels of setting the league record for regular season wins, the long, strange trip started there.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are the 2020 Stanley Cup Champions. Say it out loud. It sure feels good. The Stanley Cup Champs are our Tampa Bay Lightning. What a difference a little more than a year makes. Our Boys in Blue, the Bolts came through. Throughout these playoffs, this group found ways to overcome every challenge to earn the hardest trophy in sports to win. Watching Captain Steven Stamkos hoist the 35 pound trophy over his head, I was overcome by a flash of memories.
From the “Seen Stamkos” marketing campaign in his draft year to his 2:47 of ice time in the Cup Final. No reason to say he outscored Tyler Seguin in goals for the series. Forget about Seguin playing every minute of each of the six games versus that immortal 2:47. It was that kind of season.
In The Beginning
After the loss to Columbus last April, aside from the shock, it was time to take stock. From GM Julien Brisebois down to the Zamboni driver. We all heard the calls for Coach Jon Cooper’s head. Certain players were the target of the boo birds as well. But what could they do? After the St. Louis Blues and Patrick Maroon won the Cup, there was the draft.
The Lightning selected Forward Nolan Foote at number 27 of the first round. For those scoring at home, he is the brother of Defenseman Cal Foote who the Lightning selected #14 two years earlier. Great, now the team has a couple of Feete but still the sweep. On the second day of the draft, Brisebois pulled the trigger on a deal. J.T. Miller was traded to Vancouver in exchange for two draft picks and Goalie Marek Mazanac. One of those draft picks would loom large as the Bolts moved towards what became the run for the Cup.
Before the off-season was complete, the Lightning added Curtis McIlhinney to backup Andrei Vasilveskiy in the net. Brisebois also added Defensemen Luke Schenn, Kevin Shattenkirk as well as Maroon. The band was beginning to come together though we didn’t yet recognize.
Long, Strange Trip for the Bolts to Sweden
Once the 2019-20 season began it was clear the team was in flux. The month of October was at best average as their 6-6 record in their first 12 games would indicate. The first game in November was a loss to the New York Islanders. Now 6-7, the team was headed to Sweden to participate in the NHL Global Series against the Buffalo Sabres. A home and home back to back series with the Sabres 5000 miles from Tampa. That’s definitely long. Time would tell if it were to be a strange trip as well.
After missing the previous two games, Defenseman Victor Hedman was ready to play the two games in his home country. He tallied an assist in the first game and a goal in the second both Bolts victories in his home country. These wins might have ignited the team but no. In the remaining nine games of November, they would go 4-4-1. Average. The first 10 games of December and it is evident the boys haven’t shaken the Columbus series loss. They went 5-5 and were the most talented average team in the league. Was it going to be like this all season? Will Brisebois have to break up this team? Then things began to change.
Who Are These Guys?
In a home game against the interstate rival, Florida Panthers, we saw the team these guys could become. In a 6-1 drubbing of the listless Cats, the Lightning scored three power play goals. Thereafter, the team rattled off 10 straight wins into the new year. We all thought maybe 2020 is going to be a great year! The most impressive thing was they outscored their opponents 43-17 in those 10 games. Four of those games were decided by one goal and they won. Two shutouts and the boys are climbing up the standings.
By the end of January, the team began another winning streak. By the time this one ended, the Lightning won 11 games in a row into February. As the trade deadline approached, many thought Brisebois would stand pat. He did so the previous year and despite the playoff embarrassment, they did tie the record for most wins in a season. But this year was different, the 10 and 11 game win streaks notwithstanding. So Brisebois traded away the two first round picks in the 2020 draft they owned. He got Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow for those two picks.
Nothing could stop this team now. As is the way many times, the good fortune came to a halt in more ways than one, At the end of February, Captain Steven Stamkos was diagnosed with a core muscle injury that required surgery. That would pale in comparison to what would happen at the beginning of March.
On March 12th, the NHL announced a pause to the season would take place as a result of Covid-19. Questions abound. When would the season resume? Would the season resume? What about the playoffs? Where can I buy some toilet paper? Just what the hell is going on?
This was the part of the year that was both long and strange. But the league announced in June that they would indeed complete this year’s playoffs. There would be two hub cities. Instead of the usual 16 teams there were going to be 24 teams invited to the playoffs. All precautions were to be taken and we were preparing for the first bubble playoffs ever. The top four teams in each conference would play a round robin while the bottom eight teams would play a best of five series to move on. The Lightning were the two seed in the Eastern Conference.
In the first round series, they would face the team of last year’s nightmare – The Columbus Blue Jackets. You know that this was going to be tough. No way anyone could have known just how tough. In Game 1, it took five overtime periods to decide a winner. The equivalent of 2 ⅔ games in one. Bolts won. No better way to get that chip off your shoulder than to beat it off you in a series. Beat them they did. In five games, the Lightning sent the Blue Jackets home. Next up was the Boston Bruins where we knew we’d see some good old fashioned hate. The Lightning were playing like a well oiled machine. Disposing of the Bruins in five wasn’t long enough for that playoff dislike to build up. Next up, the Islanders were next in the Conference Finals.
The Lightning Run to The Cup
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals looked like men against boys. The Lightning won 8-2 and it didn’t even feel that close. The Islanders fought back in the next five games but in six the Bolts punched their ticket for the Stanley Cup Final. What can we say about the Stanley Cup. Dallas was the surprise foe. In Game 1, they took it to Tampa and won 4-1. Up to this point in the playoffs, the Lightning responded with a win after every loss. That trend held up and boys won Game 2. The series is at 1-1 and it could be a coin flip to see which team would win. Then the buzz started. Stamkos might be playing in Game 3. Sightings of Stamkos became a cottage industry.
He came through like a comet. Playing only a few shifts, totaling 2 minutes and 47 seconds of ice time, he made the most of this. Stamkos scored a goal to give his team a 2-0 lead in a game they never looked back on. For that matter the series was won the second Stamkos’ shot hit the back of the net. The explosion on the bench was palpable. The jump by the boys on the ice was noticeable. Their captain, their leader the linchpin of this team made his presence felt. We wouldn’t see him again until Commissioner Gary Bettman handed the Stanley Cup to the Captain. We also saw Hedman win the Conn Smythe trophy for most valuable player in the playoffs.
The team came home, the parades, the events were being scheduled. But take a moment. Reflect on what we all just witnessed, It is inevitable that this group of players will never be together again. They will walk together forever in our hearts and in our minds. Most of them will never have to buy a drink in this town. These Bolts accomplished something only one other team in franchise history did. Look at how those guys are treated in this town. Hell, many of them still call Tampa home. That’s what these guys did. For that second in time when Dave Mishkin said the Tampa Bay Lightning reached the mountaintop, it was the end of this long, strange trip.
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