After gutting out a tough series to get to the Stanley Cup Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning are hoping that they can live up to their namesake and strike twice as they look to make it consecutive Stanley Cups in a best-of-seven series that starts on Monday against the plucky underdog Montreal Canadiens.
Thanks to an adjusted playoff format for just this season, this will be the first final between two Eastern Conference teams in 41 years. Tampa Bay and Montreal will face off for the third time in eight postseasons, and this time it's for the Stanley Cup.
“They’re going to get the best team that they’ve played against so far, and we’re going to get the best team that we’ve played against so far,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said Friday after a 1-0 victory against the New York Islanders in Game 7 of the semifinals. “It’s going to be a tough, grinding series.”
Montreal swept Tampa Bay in the first round in 2014 on the way to the East final, and the Lightning beat the Canadiens in six games in the second round on their way to the 2015 final. Lightning coach Jon Cooper, Stamkos and six other players remain from the series six years ago, while the Canadiens only have Brendan Gallagher left on their roster from back then.
These teams have also flip-flopped roles since. The Canadiens are now the younger team that hadn't gone deep into the playoffs yet, while the Lightning endured the pain of losing in the 2015 final and getting swept out of the first round in 2019 before winning it all in the bubble last year.
“It took a lot to get here,” Cooper said. “It was all building blocks to get to here, and you can’t predict that. It’s going to happen.”
It's happening now, with Game 1 at Tampa Bay set for Monday night.
The last time a Stanley Cup Final took place between two Eastern teams, the New York Islanders beat the Philadelphia Flyers in 1980 for the first of their four consecutive titles. Then-Flyers forward Reggie Leach didn't think much of the bus trips back and forth between Philadelphia and Long Island because, “We took a bus every place back then.”
This won't quite be that, but it's nothing like recent series between Boston and St. Louis, Washington and Vegas or Chicago and Tampa Bay.
“It takes a toll on you flying across the country on your off days,” said former Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp, now an NBC Sports analyst. “You have enough stress and physical pressure in those games that to spend your off days on the airplanes getting ready to play another one was definitely tough.”
Who's the best goaltender in hockey? The final between Montreal's Carey Price and Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy could go a long way toward deciding that.
Price has allowed 35 goals in 17 games, and Vasilevskiy 36 goals in 18 games.
“It’ll be obviously a big challenge for both teams,” Vasilevskiy said. “Carey, obviously he’s a great goalie – one of the best in the NHL – so, I’ll give him my best effort, for sure.”
Cooper said he'd never heard a building as loud as the final minute of the semifinal clincher against the Islanders, and that's with Tampa Bay's Amalie Arena at full capacity. Montreal's Bell Centre has been limited to 3,500 fans with the hope, even from visitors, that more are let in for the final.
“I hope they let more fans in there,” Cooper said. “The fans in Quebec deserve it. They haven’t been back since ’93. They deserve to watch their team play ... This game was meant to be played in front of fans.”
While Cooper has been behind the Lightning's bench since 2013, the Canadiens are on their third coach since February. Dominque Ducharme took over when Claude Julien was fired in February, and assistant Luke Richardson became acting coach when Ducharme tested positive for COVID-19.
Ducharme could be out of isolation as soon as Game 3 Friday in Montreal.
Montreal will be looking for its first championship since 1993, which was Tampa Bay's inaugural season. The Canadiens have an NHL-best 24 titles, but the Lightning have won twice since 2004 and have become a standard bearer for franchise success.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge for us, and that’s where we go back to all the times that we’ve been in this situation,” Stamkos said. "And this core now, there’s guys that this is their third final. We just go back on past experiences and go from there.”
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