A remarkable run of redemption

The Lightning completed an incredible playoff run, but let’s review what it took to get here.

Lightning+captain+Steven+Stamkos+lifts+the+Stanley+Cup+for+the+first+time+in+his+12-year+career.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos lifts the Stanley Cup for the first time in his 12-year career.

Alex Kajda, Staff Writer

It’s about time. For years and years, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been contending, but falling short. And in the wild year that’s been 2020, they finally pull through. After years of heartbreak and adversity, the Lightning were able to run through the playoffs without facing elimination, although that doesn’t mean their run was free of stress or tension. I began watching the Lightning in 2008, I’ve followed Steven Stamkos throughout his entire career, I remember watching Victor Hedman score his first career goal in his rookie season. Seeing the jubilation of these players finally living their dream that they’ve come so close to so many times before, makes this victory that much more bittersweet.

First, let’s recap how we got here. When I started watching the Bolts, it was a rough start. The season prior, 2007-08, they finished bottom of the league, but netted the number 1 pick in the draft, in which they acquired Steven Stamkos. The 2004 team that won the Cup was all but gone, as the team was blown up for a rebuild, even cup-winning coach John Tortorella was fired. The 2004-05 NHL lockout didn’t help either, as the team’s chances at repeating were all but wiped out. Starting the 2008-09 season, the Lightning experimented with coach Barry Melrose (who my father often refers to as a clown). Melrose stated that Stamkos “wasn’t ready for the NHL” and in turn, was promptly fired 16 games into his tenure. Even stating afterwards “he’s just not strong enough physically to play against defensemen who are [6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4] that can skate as good as him” and that he “[hopes] Tampa Bay doesn’t win a game in the next year” (ESPN). The season was rough, the Bolts finished 2nd to last, the low point being a 9-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, a blowout still etched into my mind even though I was 6 years old at the time. The draft netted them Victor Hedman though, and the pieces were beginning to form.

They slowly but surely dug themselves out from the bottom though, Stamkos emerged as a star, being arguably the best player in the league in a stretch from 2010-2013 (take that, Melrose). In 2014, a new coach, Jon Cooper, and a new emerging cast of young players such as Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat, made their debut’s in that season. This season was the turning point, as this was when Victor Hedman picked it up and started to become one of the league’s best defensemen. 2015 saw these new young stars catapult the team to the Stanley Cup Finals. However, nagging injuries derailed a possible Cup run, and playing a dynasty in the Chicago Blackhawks wasn’t of help either, as they won their 3rd Stanley Cup in 6 seasons. 2016 was a year for redemption, and it sure seemed so when the Lightning were up 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals over the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, after dropping Game 6 at home, not even Steven Stamkos returning from injury could stop the Penguins’ momentum in Game 7, as they won the series en route to their first of back-to-back championships.

An injury riddled 2016-17 season saw the team miss the playoffs, but some bright spots emerged. Brayden Point made his debut in this season and Andrei Vasilevskiy cemented a starting role for the team. 2017-18 should have been the year. No injuries for the team, and they once again cruised to a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals over the Washington Capitals, and in what became déjà vu, they blew the series again, this time being shut out in Games 6 and 7. The Capitals ended up winning the Cup, making the loss that much more painful.

I don’t like talking about 2018-19; what’s been said has been said. 62 wins, tied for most all time, Kucherov with the greatest regular season for a player in over two decades, awards galore, but not one win in the playoffs. I was tired of the playoff failures in 2015, 2016, 2018 and even 2011. I thought this was the year to win it all, no team was even close. But they became too cocky, and the Columbus Blue Jackets formed a perfect strategy to stifle the high-powered Lightning. This loss stung, it made me contemplate if I’d ever see this core win it all. Many fans called to fire Jon Cooper, but the Lightning stuck with it, when many teams wouldn’t have.

The following year, and the subsequent pause that resulted from COVID-19 led to an odd, 24 team playoff format that would jumble up the seeding from what was projected. I was hoping and wishing that they wouldn’t match up with Columbus again. But what do you know, it happened anyway.

It had to have been destiny, right? This had to be a sign. The first game resulted in a 5-overtime slug fest, the 4th longest game in league history, but they won it, using that game’s momentum to get past their demons and beat the Jackets in 5. Next, was the Lightning’s arch-rival, the Boston Bruins. Any Lightning fan knows the history this team has with Boston and it isn’t pretty. They dropped Game 1, but won four straight, knocking them out with relative ease. Next was the New York Islanders, who were coached by none other than Barry Trotz, the same coach that knocked out the Lightning in 2018 with the Washington Capitals. Once again, the Lightning had a 3-2 lead in the series, and the flashbacks were kicking in, but Anthony Cirelli’s overtime winner in Game 6 relieved it all, and the Lightning moved on to the finals.

In the finals they faced the Dallas Stars, coached by none other than Rick Bowness, former assistant coach of the Lightning from 2013-2018… you can’t make it up. As if the run wasn’t mythical enough, Steven Stamkos checking into Game 3 after missing the entire playoffs due to injury, playing only 3 minutes and potting a goal before reaggravating the injury and not playing another minute in the game or series, is stuff made of legend; it just can’t be made up. Andrei Vasilevskiy’s first playoff shutout came in Game 6, a long time coming for him, as the Lightning clinched the Stanley Cup with a 2-0 victory.

This run was a redemption tour, all the stars aligned perfectly. In order to win the Cup, the Lightning had to face their demons head on and defeat them, which they did every in each round and every step of the way. It was a storybook run, stuff made of legend.

It’s incredible seeing the players I’ve admired for so long finally get the chip off their shoulder. Despite it being in a bubble environment and in front of no fans, the championship still remains the same and could even be considered more difficult to win than a usual championship. Seeing the players celebrate after years of heartbreak is incredible to see and they deserve every bit of it. In the nightmare that’s been 2020, I’m glad that there’s finally a bright spot for me to look back on, and in my senior year, there’s no better time for this championship to happen.