Last spring, the Tampa Bay Lighting were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Lightning did not lose a hard-fought, seven-game series to a Blue Jackets squad pulsating with energy. No, not even close. Tampa Bay was swept aside.
The Presidents’ Trophy juggernaut that had earned 128 regular season points exited stage-left without so much as a whimper. The entire organization had to sit with that rancid taste in their mouths.
Tampa Bay understood a change was necessary and brought in pieces to add a little sandpaper, toughness and swagger. During the offseason and at the trade deadline, the Lightning added savvy depth players, such as Patrick Maroon, Kevin Shattenkirk and Blake Coleman.
After the COVID-19 pandemic caused the National Hockey League to shut down in March, the Lightning were able to recharge. The team had been in a brutal stretch, dropping seven of its last 10 games, while also losing captain Steven Stamkos to injury.
When the league reignited the 2020 campaign five months later, Tampa Bay would not be denied in their quest for the Stanley Cup.
After the Round Robin tournament, the Lightning drew… the Columbus Blue Jackets. All the pressure in the world was on Tampa Bay. If they lost in back-to-back first rounds to Columbus, some serious changes would have been made in the organization.
In Game 1, the Lightning would walk away victorious after an incredible five overtime marathon, thanks to Brayden Point. Tampa Bay then closed out the Blue Jackets in five games, exercising the demons from their failure last April.
Waiting for them next would be the 2020 President Trophy winner, the Boston Bruins. After dropping Game 1, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy dominated the next four contests.
Hedman was absolutely brilliant with and without the puck. He stifled Boston’s top scorers throughout the series, while also giving Bruins goaltender Jaroslav Halak fits with his shots from the point.
Between the pipes for Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy was phenomenal. Over the final three games of the series, all Lightning wins, he allowed only four goals on 101 Bruins shots. While Tampa Bay outclassed Boston for much of the series, Vasilevskiy was a brick wall when called upon for a big save.
For a chance to compete in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Lightning would have to go through the dogged, resilient New York Islanders. New York’s ability to strangle an opponent’s offense could have proven to be a tough matchup for Tampa Bay’s deep, talented attack.
Instead, the Lightning responded in Game 1 by dropping an eight spot on the Islanders. While New York battled back after that shellacking to force a Game 6, Anthony Cirelli drove Tampa Bay to the Finals thanks to his overtime, series-clinching goal.
The 2020 version of the Stanley Cup Finals had many unique aspects at play, including no home ice advantage, no travel and no fans. However, the teams involved were also quite peculiar.
Dallas or Tampa Bay would be awarded hockey’s most coveted trophy, as the Stars and Lightning were about to fight for the Stanley Cup. But the two are not exactly rivaling cities like Toronto, Boston or Montreal as the hockey Meccas of North America.
While they are certainly not traditional hockey markets, these two combined for an entertaining battle.
After a frustrating Game 1 defeat to Anton Khudobin and the Stars, the Lightning immediately regained control of the series. Tampa Bay was able to stave off a Dallas comeback to even up the series at a game apiece, setting the stage for an emotional Game 3.
Stamkos had not been able to suit up for 211 days. He got the go-ahead to play in the third game, and Tampa Bay’s captain rose to the occasion, as he has done so many times throughout his brilliant career.
After Hedman delivered the puck perfectly to Stamkos, he avoided a hit and snapped home a score. That terrific shot gave a jolt to every Lightning player. Even with less than three minutes of playing time, their captain still found a way to leave his mark on the contest.
That turned out to be the only playoff game Stamkos would take part in.
After trading overtime wins, Tampa Bay had a chance to raise Lord Stanley in Game 6 for the first time in 16 years. To no one’s surprise, Tampa Bay’s three best playoff performers delivered.
Point’s league-leading 14th playoff lamplighter got the scoring going for Tampa Bay in the first period. Hedman logged a tick over 25 minutes on the ice while adding an assist. Vasilevskiy was perfect, stopping 22 Dallas shots and securing his first career postseason shutout.
Those were the three stars of the game. While Hedman deservedly skated away with the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs most valuable player, their clinching win highlighted the Lightning’s three best players. Game 6 was a microcosm of everything Tampa Bay had done in the playoffs.
Who knows how the season would have concluded had the league not shut down in March. But frankly, that does not matter. Tampa Bay was the best team in the NHL’s bubble and lifted the Cup without ever having to participate in a Game 7.
They are as worthy as any champion in league history.