DENVER– They say the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win. Well, it’s also the hardest trophy to lose. When you’ve invested so much physically, mentally and emotionally during the Stanley Cup Playoffs for more than two months, you don’t want it to go to waste.
Now consider the Tampa Bay Lightning coming into Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals at Ball Arena on Friday (8:00 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, CBC, SN, TVAS) and finishing in the best-of-7 Series trailing the Colorado Avalanche 3-1, on the brink of elimination.
Your investment spans three seasons. They’re not just chasing the trophy. As coach Jon Cooper has said, they’re aiming for greatness and trying to become the first team to win the trophy three years in a row since the New York Islanders won it four straight seasons from 1980-83.
It’s hard enough to win the cup once. You never know how many opportunities you’re going to get, especially in an age of salary caps and parity. How many chances does the Lightning have for that?
“We have to win a game,” said the Tampa Bay forward Pat Maroon, who is seeking four straight championships himself after winning the trophy with the St. Louis Blues in 2019 before signing with the Lightning. “Right now we’re concentrating on Game 5 and we have to win. I mean, there’s nothing we can really do.”
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Let’s face it: the odds are against the flash. Teams trailing 3-1 in the Best of 7 Cup Final Series are 1-35. The only team to win was the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, who came back from a 3-0 deficit against the Detroit Red Wings.
The Lightning get beat up. They were outmatched by the Avalanche’s speed and special teams. Too often they’ve survived more than they thrived, spending time in their zone, clogging lanes, blocking shots, throwing out the puck and watching the avalanche come back at them.
Colorado’s 3-2 overtime win in Game 4 at the Amalie Arena on Wednesday was controversial because Tampa Bay felt the focus Nazem KadriThe goal shouldn’t have counted because of too many men on the ice. But the Lightning were outperformed in OT by 10-3.
“You can’t pout about that,” Cooper said. “You turn the page, move on, and let’s go. So the mountain is a bit higher. Well, at least we’re still climbing. We’re not outside.”
If the Flash tipped over, they could have, should have, did in the first round of the Eastern Conference against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They trailed 3-2 in the series and 3-2 in the third period of Game 6.
There would have been no shame in losing to the Maple Leafs, who had the fourth-best regular-season record in the NHL. They could have huffed stogies poolside and enjoyed a nice, long summer knowing they would become the second team in the Cap era to win back-to-back titles after the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins.
But they came back and won the series in seven games. In the second round, they defeated the Florida Panthers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team. Then they came back from a 2-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference Finals — and a 2-0 in the second half of Game 3 — to defeat the New York Rangers in six games.
After going through all this, are you going to faint now?
Cooper brought up the Toronto series at the Tampa airport before flying to Denver on Thursday.
“What the hell is the difference?” he said. “We still have to take to the streets and win a hockey game. We were going to have to win a game on the road anyway. We didn’t have home ice cream. So why not tomorrow?”
The difference, the reason why not, is of course the Avalanche. They were the better team, they are 3-1 in the finals and 7-2 at home.
But when you’ve won 11 straight streaks like the Lightning, think so. That’s how you have to think in this situation.
If the Lightning win Game 5, however they do, things will get interesting again. They will be home in Game 6. The Avalanche will feel the pressure to avoid Game 7, where anything can happen; The Flash will sense an opportunity to add another layer to its legend.
“We’re still at it,” Maroon said. “Obviously it’s a tough loss [in Game 4], but the good thing is we still play hockey. We didn’t lose [the series] still. It’s the first to have four wins now and we have a bit of a challenge ahead of us. But if there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team.”