The Tampa Bay Lightning knew it was not going to be easy. Nothing ever is when it comes to winning the Stanley Cup. Doing it once is hard enough. The Lightning have won the Stanley Cup two years in a row with their eyes on a third straight Stanely Cup Championship.
Their quest for a third straight championship remains alive after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 in Game 7 of their first-round matchup Saturday night. For the first time in these playoffs, the defending champions looked like the champs of old. Tampa Bay played lockdown defence, which was a staple of their championship-winning teams.
The one thing that had been missing all season was the third line for Tampa Bay. Recall, that Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, and Barclay Goodrow were the go-to line for Tampa Bay over the last two years. This year they were trying to recreate that. The additions of Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel were supposed to fill those voids. Along with guys like Ross Colton. Though it took some time, the Lightning had everything click in Game 7.
Nick Paul scored his first two career playoff goals including the game-winner. His line was dominant from start to finish. The Lightning looked like themselves. When they needed their game the most, Tampa Bay was able to find that next gear and show why they are the champs.
However, Cooper knew his team could not rest on its laurels from years gone by. Cooper knew the Maple Leafs had a good team over in the other locker room. And just because they did it in the past did not mean they were going to do it this year.
But the one thing motivating this Tampa Bay Lightning team is doing something no team in the modern era has ever done and that is to win three straight Stanley Cups. The last team to win three consecutive Stanley Cups were the New York Islanders of the 1980s. Those Islanders teams won four in a row and went to five straight finals. Every team in this era has come up short and it has been the second round that has done them in.
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However heading into Game 7 against the Maple Leafs, Cooper used his words of wisdom when asked if the two straight Stanley Cups would take the sting away if the Lightning were to lose Game 7.
“I don’t want anybody to sit here and say, ‘Well, it is easier (to handle a loss) because we won two Cups. If the Leafs get the best of us tonight, it’s OK.’ That’s BS,” Cooper said. “We’re standing here on the cusp of greatness. Why the hell wouldn’t we charge through that door.”
At times during the season, the Lightning may have looked tired because of all the hockey they played during the last two seasons. Even down the stretch and through the first six games of the series the Lightning did not look like themselves. Especially Andrei Vasilevskiy. But Vasilevskiy showed why he was 5-0 with five shutouts in his past five close-out games. He shut the door on the Maple Leafs playing his best game of the series.
It started back in Game 6 once Toronto took a 3-2 lead. He did not allow another goal knowing the season would be over. Toronto had many chances in the third period of Game 6 and the overtime period. Not to mention the saves Vasilevskiy made in the third period of Game 7. He raised his game with the season on the line. That is what the great ones do.
And the guys in front of him are motivated to win because of the commitment to the team-first mentality. Yes, the Lightning have all this great skill and talent, but it does not mean anything if they do not buy into the team mentality and that was on display in Game 7.
“Basically, all 20 guys, you might as well put (No. ) 88 on their back,” head coach Jon Cooper said after the game. “I mean, that’s what they were doing. They were fully committed to blocking shots and when you play with that passion, then usually good things happen.”
Winning championships are not so supposed to be easy or else everyone would be a winner. The great teams know how to learn from their past to get over the hump. Losing is the ultimate motivating factor to winning a title. The Tampa Bay Lightning are champions for a reason. And until someone beats them there is a reason to think they can’t three-peat.
Note: The Lightning improved their record following a loss in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to 17-0. This dates back to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The last team to knock them out of the playoffs was the Columbus Blue Jackets.
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