DENVER — The final minutes had been ticking away for the Tampa Bay Lightning, together with the dream of hockey immortality. Winners of the final two Stanley Cups, the Lightning trailed the proficient Toronto Maple Leafs by a objective late within the third interval of a first-round elimination recreation final month.
If the Lightning couldn’t discover a technique to rating within the last 11 minutes of Sport 6, their quest to grow to be the primary group in practically 40 years to win three straight titles would have fizzled bitterly.
However by way of the nice fortune of a few favorable penalty calls, and a power-play objective by Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay pressured time beyond regulation. From that second ahead, the Lightning have gone 10-2 and received three playoff sequence to regain their pursuit of a three-peat.
“That’s why the sport is 60 minutes and the sequence is seven video games,” stated Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay’s sagacious defenseman. “You by no means know when it’s coming. Nevertheless it’s coming.”
For 3 years, the Lightning have simply saved coming, and nobody has been capable of cease them. Now it’s the Colorado Avalanche’s flip to attempt.
On Wednesday in Denver, Tampa Bay will play the Avalanche in Sport 1 of the primary unaltered Stanley Cup finals because the coronavirus shut down sports activities in March 2020. If the Lightning discover a technique to win, they’ll grow to be the primary group to win three straight Stanley Cup championships because the Islanders received 4 in a row from 1980 to 1983.
“They’ve lots going for them,” stated Gabriel Landeskog, the 29-year-old Colorado captain. “However so can we.”
Tampa Bay’s first title on this string got here towards the Dallas Stars in 2020. It was performed in September as an alternative of June, in a so-called bubble in Edmonton, Alberta, with no followers in attendance due to pandemic-related restrictions. Final yr, the Lightning beat the Montreal Canadiens within the finals after a season by which the divisions had been altered to restrict crossing the border between the US and Canada. When the finals video games had been performed in Montreal, attendance was restricted to three,500 followers.
This yr, the N.H.L. has basically returned to regular. Most conventional of all, maybe, is that Tampa Bay remains to be enjoying. The outstanding Lightning have received 11 consecutive playoff sequence, the third-most of any group. (The Islanders received 19 sequence in a row from 1980 to 1984, and the Canadiens received 13 straight from 1976 to 1980.)
Profitable two straight titles isn’t any small accomplishment: It has occurred solely twice because the Edmonton Oilers did it in 1987 and 1988. The Detroit Crimson Wings received back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998, and Pittsburgh Penguins received in 2016 and 2017.
Having been there and performed that, Tampa Bay is just not shy about pondering why it has been a lot tougher to seize a 3rd.
“One of many issues we discuss, not solely this yr, however the yr earlier than, is why different groups don’t get again there,” stated Jon Cooper, who has coached the Lightning since 2013 and guided them by way of this outstanding streak. “Is it simply sufficient that you simply obtained your identify on the Cup, you exhale and it’s OK, you get a number of mulligans for the following couple of years?”
With two championships in tow, the Lightning gamers may have exhaled within the last 10 minutes towards Toronto. They may have taken mulligans after falling behind, two video games to none, within the Japanese Convention finals towards the Rangers, and stopped summoning that added effort on each shift, so essential to win on the highest degree.
Related ideas of satisfaction and capitulation might have derailed different profitable groups as they approached roadblocks on the trail to a three-peat. The Lightning, up to now, have chosen a highway that might lead on to their dynastic ambitions.
“It’s taken a lot to get right here,” Cooper stated. “Why not maintain going? That’s been a giant factor of ours, placing our stamp on historical past.”
Profitable three titles in a row has truly already occurred on this century, at the very least to a person. If any members of the Lightning are curious to know what it takes, they want solely flip to a teammate, the bruising winger Pat Maroon.
Maroon received the 2019 Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues, then signed as a free agent with the Lightning. If he wins once more this yr, he’ll grow to be the forty fifth participant to win 4 Cups in a row, and the one lively participant to take action.
“It’s simply loopy to me that I’m going by way of this once more,” Maroon stated. “I’m very lucky and fortunate to be part of this.”
Conversely, final yr’s victory towards Montreal got here on the expense of Corey Perry, now a member of the Lightning. Perry has been a sort of foil to Maroon’s uncanny success. Perry, 37, is enjoying in his third consecutive finals. However he misplaced the final two, as a member of the Stars after which the Canadiens.
“You play this recreation to win,” Perry stated. “You don’t play simply to get right here. It’s what retains me going.”
A minimum of he received the Cup with the Anaheim Geese in 2007. However now the surging Avalanche stand in the way in which. Colorado would be the greatest group Tampa Bay has confronted in its three-year run, stated Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay’s veteran ahead. With gamers like middle Nathan MacKinnon and defenseman Cale Makar, who each ranked within the prime 20 in factors within the common season, the Avalanche have the sort of expertise and depth that Tampa Bay’s earlier finals opponents lacked.
In some unspecified time in the future, the Lightning are more likely to discover themselves behind in a recreation or within the sequence. They will ask themselves, once more, whether or not to exhale and acquiesce or add to their greatness. For Cooper, his gamers have already demonstrated an amazing want to place the Lightning bolt stamp on hockey historical past.
“Within the Toronto sequence once we had been down, 3-2 and there have been no tomorrows,” Cooper stated, “they gave us two extra months of tomorrows.”