We can find ourselves so entangled in the matchups and minutia, the missed calls and unbuffered stream of statistics, that sometimes we forget to zoom out, sit back and appreciate what we are really witnessing.
When it comes to team sports, the Tampa Bay Lightning — now just four wins from the first Stanley Cup threepeat in 39 years — are greatness in its purest form.
Gutsy yet skilled. Selfless yet fierce. Consistent yet creative. Structured yet adaptable.
An ever-revving opponent-crushing machine, but one dripping with personality.
As he cradled the Prince of Wales Trophy with all the familiarity of rocking a third baby, captain Steven Stamkos struck the perfect blend of delight and determination.
“Totally amazing what this group can accomplish when we stick together, when we stick to the game plan. Everyone had a huge part in this,” Stamkos told Hockey Night in Canada’s David Amber, standing on a shredded home ice sheet.
“I’m so happy and proud to be a part of this group of guys. It’s so special. I don’t think a lot of people realize how hard it is to do what we’re doing right now.”
Stamkos’s hands, the ones gripping the Lightning’s prize for defeating the New York Rangers 2-1 in Saturday’s series-clinching Game 6, were the same hands that fired the only two pucks to find a path past the previously insolvable Igor Shesterkin.
The same hands that flung off gloves after the final buzzer in Game 5, clenched tight and throwing statement punches at the face of fellow No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere.
The same hands that have been on the smiling side of the centre-ice reception line for 11 consecutive series.
That Tampa Bay, bound next week for Denver (and, perhaps, Destiny), has an opportunity to do something most recently accomplished by the early-’80s New York Islanders is something worth marvelling. (Back then, only 21 teams, not 32, could vie for a banner.)
That this franchise is going for three rings in a row amidst the circus of three pandemic-altered campaigns, under the roadblock of a hard — and flat! — salary cap, and without home-ice advantage to start any of their four series is the stuff of sport legend.
En route to the ultimate dance, the Lightning trailed the Toronto Maple Leafs thrice in Round 1, waiting until the final buzzer of Game 7 to seize their first series lead. Yes, the Bolts sliced through the Presidents’ Trophy champion Florida Panthers, but they stumbled early against the Rangers before rallying with a four-game win streak in one of the most impressive exhibitions of 5-on-5 defence and goaltending you’ll ever see.
In Games 1 and 2, the Blueshirts scored nine times. In Games 3, 4, 5 and 6, they scored a grand total of five goals — and just once at even-strength. Once.
“We were down two — certainly not the start we wanted. I thought we found our legs, we found our game, and this group is just resilient,” said Stamkos, his beard growing as thick as the history he’s writing.
“They do whatever it takes.”
Whatever it takes means surviving a month of playoff hockey without star centre Brayden Point, who piled a league-best 56 points during Tampa’s back-to-back Cup runs.
“He might be arguably their best all-around player,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant told reporters.
(Good news: Point is questionable for Game 1 of the final but “extremely probable” to appear in the series, per coach Jon Cooper.)
Whatever it takes also means redeeming your mistakes.
And there’s no better clutch example of that than Stamkos in Game 6.
The captain whipped a tough-angle shot on a solo rush up the right wing that beat Shesterkin far-side halfway through a scoreless game.
Then New York’s Frank Vatrano clapped back with a power-play blast in the third period as Stamkos sat in the penalty box serving a holding penalty on Lafreniere.
Fittingly, it was Stamkos, a scant 21 seconds later, driving the other way, taking a saucer pass from Nikita Kucherov and scoring the clincher as his own shot rebounded out of Shesterkin’s glove and off Stamkos’s leg as he followed up his shot.
Drama just beginning.
“We’re not done yet,” Stamkos asserted. “It sucks when you take a penalty in a big game, they score and tie the game. But we just responded.”
“Stammer’s been playing huge hockey for us, leading the way. I’ve noticed he’s been banging the body a lot, too. Gettin’ his licks in. Scoring goals. Blocking shots,” said teammate Patrick Maroon, winner of 15(!) consecutive series and chasing a personal fourpeat.
“We have that confidence, that swagger that we’ll find a way.”
Yes, sometimes we can get distracted and lose sight of the bigger picture.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, however, are a different beast.
They get it.
They have it.
And you’re going to have to drag it kicking and screaming out of their vice grip.
“You can’t let these opportunities slide,” said veteran defenceman Ryan McDonagh, playing hurt.
“Your tomorrows are running out, even at this position.”
So, the Lightning live to see another tomorrow, the rested and red-hot Colorado Avalanche (12-2 in the playoffs).
“Certainly, the toughest test that we’re going to face. They’re arguably the best team in the league. Probably a team we thought we’re going to play the past couple years, to be honest,” said Stamkos, still holding something silver and shining.
“We’re going to have our hands full.”
Fox’s Fast 5
• How superb was the Anthony Cirelli shutdown line in Game 6?
Going against New York’s most dangerous offensive weapons, the Brandon Hagel–Cirelli–Alex Killorn trio out-attempted its competition 24-7 and outchanced them 13-3 at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick. Simply a dominant defensive display.
“He’s Kucherov without the puck,” Cooper said of his selfless centreman. “He’s a fierce hound. He’s just on it.”
• Here’s Lafreniere’s headshot on Victor Hedman. Lafreniere wasn’t penalized for the hit, which temporarily sent Hedman out of the game. But there is a chance he starts 2022-23 later than the rest. The department of player safety will have a look.
• Corey Perry becomes just the second player in history to reach the Stanley Cup Final with three different teams in three consecutive seasons. (Marian Hossa is the other.)
• Rangers coach Gerard Gallant refused to explain why he scratched Kaapo Kakko on Saturday in favour of the seldom-used Dryden Hunt.
Hunt was a dash-1 with two shots on net in his 10:58 on the ice.
Further, the ailing Ryan Strome (minus-1 in 8:58 played) tried competing but failed to finish when his undisclosed lower-body injury prevented him from skating with any confidence.
Asked twice about his lineup choices, Gallant replied: “I’m not going to talk about it. Now is not the time.”
• Classy gesture by Lightning CEO Steve Griggs, who reached out to the Lightning fan who was assaulted by a Rangers fan following Tampa’s Game 5 victory Thursday at Madison Square Garden.