The Tampa Bay Lightning’s Long March to Victory

The Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Dallas Stars in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final last Monday, earning the Lightning its second Stanley Cup in franchise history. The Lightning’s path to the cup, however, was a long and arduous one that was not short of frustrating and disappointing moments.

The Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Dallas Stars in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final last Monday, earning the Lightning its second Stanley Cup in franchise history. The Lightning’s path to the cup, however, was a long and arduous one that was not short of frustrating and disappointing moments.

The Lightning’s success is greatly attributed to the work of former General Manager Steve Yzerman, who built the team’s core before leaving Tampa Bay in 2018, he built the core of the Stanley Cup-winning team. Aside from Captain Steven Stamkos, who was drafted before Yzerman joined the Lightning, Yzerman developed forwards Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, who led the playoffs in points over the last several months with 30 and 28, respectively. Yzerman was also responsible for selecting the skillful and offensive-minded defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, and goaltender Andrei Vasilevsky, who posted 1.90 goals against average, a measure of a goaltender’s consistency throughout a season. These players formed a strong core for the team and were invaluable to the Lightning in their quest for the Stanley Cup this past season. John Cooper became the head coach near the end of the 2012-2013 season, and under his leadership, the team has made the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons, an incredible feat in the modern era.

The Lightning also became notable for the international players on their roster, providing a platform for European players to succeed. Vasilevsky, Kucherov, and Sergachev—all Russian—had outstanding performances this postseason. The success of these Russian players is a great testament to the strength of Russian hockey and a proud moment for Russian fans. Vasilevsky won the Vezina trophy, given to the goalie who is “adjudged to be the best at his position,” in the 2018-19 season. Defenseman Victor Hedman won the highly coveted Conn Smythe trophy this postseason, which is always awarded to the most valuable player of the playoffs. Like his Russian teammates, Hedman’s achievements this postseason means a great deal to Swedish hockey and its fans.

While the Lightning had its incredible roster for several seasons, it has struggled to go far in the playoffs, gaining a reputation as nearly-men. In the 2018-2019 season, the team finished the regular season as the best team in the National Hockey League (NHL) with significantly more points than any other team, but its outstanding performance did not carry over to the playoffs. In fact, the Columbus Blue Jackets defeated the Lightning in a humiliating four-game sweep in the first round.

Despite their playoff success, the Lightning had an arduous 2019-20 regular season before the Covid-19-induced halt in March. When the modified playoffs began in August, many critics believed that the Lightning would suffer the same fate in the playoffs as it had in past seasons despite its once again outstanding regular season performance. Ironically, the Lightning faced off against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round as it did the prior season. The first game of the series went into the fifth overtime, meaning almost 160 minutes of playing time including regulation time, and was one of the longest NHL games in history. The Lightning ended up winning the game, setting the precedent that they would not fade on this occasion. Once the Tampa Bay freight train got going this postseason, it was dominant. The team won each series in five or six games, with highlights such as a 5-2 victory against the Stars and a vicious 7-1 thrashing of the Boston Bruins.

Winning the Stanley Cup is arguably one of the greatest feats in sports. Nobody on the Lightning was around when the team won its first Stanley Cup back in 2004, so for almost all of these players, capturing the Cup is an achievement and a memory that will forever be etched into their lives. This is also Lightning Head Coach Jon Cooper’s first Stanley Cup, and he is as thrilled about it as many of his players are. Compared to most other NHL coaches, Cooper’s entrance into the coaching world was rather unorthodox. Although he grew up playing hockey in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, Cooper played lacrosse in college and was a public defender for eleven years prior to becoming a hockey coach. Cooper began his coaching career in junior hockey and was eventually hired by the Lightning organization as head coach of the Norfolk Admirals, the Lightning’s then American Hockey League affiliate. Cooper became the head coach of the Lightning following the dismissal of former head coach Guy Boucher in 2013. The Lightning became a serial playoff team under Cooper, but in 2015, when the team suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals in six games, many fans might have believed that Cooper’s tenure had reached its peak, just short of the ultimate prize. The Lightning returned though, hungry for victory. Looking back on it, Cooper said, “I truly believe that failure—you have to feel it before you can have success.”

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