September 5, 2020
by: Martin Fennelly
TAMPA, Fla. – In the deafening quiet of an empty arena in Toronto, far from Tampa Bay, the Lightning have found life, a bright new hope, a vengeful vibrancy. It was so quiet that you could hear their schoolboy screams after Victor Hedman scored in overtime to send Tampa Bay past the hated Boston Bruins and into the Eastern Conference Finals. They’re halfway home.
They have been here before, only to come up short, as they did in 2017 and 2018. And there was the abrupt end to their trip to the Finals in 2015 against Cup champion Chicago. It seems like a very long time ago. Well, it was.
The clock is still ticking on Jon Cooper and his team. It was in the background as the Bolts beat the Blue Jackets in the first round. It was there as the felled Boston, only a little louder. Now it is everywhere, the Lightning on the clock, chasing their elusive dream.
They are pulling together as one. They seem poised. They seem ready. Next up comes either the Flyers or the Islanders, who play a Game 7 in their series tonight. An Islanders win and the Lightning and Cooper again face coach Barry Trotz, who is currently spinning the same web that he unleashed in 2018 as his former team, the Capitals, stunned the Lightning in the conference finals.
By the way, the Lightning beat both the Islanders and Flyers in playoff wars in 2004, before lifting the Cup for the only time in franchise history.
Is more history on the way.
It would be bizarre, to be sure, winning it all in the post-COVID mist, in the Toronto bubble, with no Lightning fans to be found in Canada. It would be even stranger if the Bolts take it all and captain Steven Stamkos was there to lift Stanley even without playing so much as one game.
But Stamkos, the captain, might have to hop out of street clothes to hoist hockey’s most precious hardware, Strange season, through and through.
This just in: The Lightning aren’t through. Yes, the injury to the dazzling Nikita Kucherov is a major concern, but he might be back for the next game. And Stamkos hasn’t been ruled out for these playoffs. Meanwhile, wonders are everywhere for this team.
Like the reminder that Hedman might be the best defenseman in the NHL. Like the emergence of Ondrej Palat, one of the kindest men in hockey, as a scoring star, Like the rock-solid steadiness of Andrei Vasilevskiy in the net. Like the Lightning becoming overtime kings, 5-0 and counting in the postseason. If you need more time against these guys, you lose. Period.
It has taken a while, and there is an ‘Or Else’ quality to this, but the Lightning have steadily built toward this moment. And built and built. Nearly a decade in the making. Since Cooper arrived during the 2013-14 season, no team has won more regular-season games than the Lightning. No team has scored more goals.
Whether it was the monumental rebuild by then-GM Steve Yzerman or the continued efforts of his successor, Julien Brisebois. The Lightning have constructed one of the best rosters in the game.
Some of it is homegrown. Stamkos and Hedman went 1, then 2, respectively, in the draft in consecutive years, before Yzerman arrived. Vasilevskiy is a first-round Yzerman pick. There is Kucherov, one of the all-time steals at 58th in the 2011 draft, and Palat, who went 208th that same year. There is bruising, talented Alex Killorn, a third-rounder, and budding superstar Brayden Point, another third-round steal. Third round is the charm, at least it was when the Bolts chose Anthony Cirelli, who has become a two-way threat.
There are the free-agent additions, like big bull Pat Maroon, who won a Cup with St. Louis. There is Kevin Shattenkirk. There is Luke Schenn.
There was the blockbuster trade to get Ryan McDonagh, who co-anchors the backline with Hedman. There was the Jonathan Drouin trade to Montreal, which brought the Lightning a future star defenseman in Mikhail Sergachev. There were trades for Braydon Coburn, Erik Cernak, Jan Rutta, and Blake Coleman.
You just don’t slap these things together. It takes time. It takes years.
Now is the time. Right now.