TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Patrick Maroon knows a thing or two about what it takes to win the Stanley Cup after doing so each of the past three years on two different teams.
The “three-Cup guy” who hoisted it with his hometown St. Louis Blues in 2019 before going back to back with the Tampa Bay Lightning has no doubt the most recent run was the most difficult to complete.
Maroon rattled off the circumstances: The pandemic stopping the season in March 2020 for 4 1/2 months; teams spending 60-plus days in a quarantined bubble for the playoffs; the league then turning around and playing a condensed, 56-game regular season before going through four more grueling playoff rounds. Tampa Bay played the entire regular season without injured star Nikita Kucherov, too, though he returned for the postseason.
“It takes a lot,” he said ”For sure this is the hardest one because we had like two months off and now we just won back to back. I don’t even know what to say.”
All that’s left to say is the Lightning pulled off arguably the hardest title defense in the century-plus history of the NHL. Winning in 2020 or 2021 with the quirky schedule and formats might have carried an asterisk, but Tampa Bay’s dominant run to earn the Stanley Cup and keep it should silence any of that talk in the name of a modern-day dynasty pulling off a once in a lifetime feat.
“I’m lost for words for this group,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “We battled through 65 days in a bubble to come home with the Stanley Cup and then another difficult season missing Kuch for the whole year and him coming back — he’s a difference-maker, as well. But back-to-back champs. It sounds pretty good.”
On the surface, it sounds impossible, certainly in the salary cap era that had seen only one team repeat since it began in 2005. That the Lightning got to win the Cup at home in front of their fans, Jon Cooper said, was like they “couldn’t have written the script any better.”
That script had more than a few re-writes along the way.
General manager Julien BriseBois couldn’t have seen the pandemic derailing the 2019-20 season when he traded one first-round pick to acquire Barclay Goodrow and another for Blake Coleman at the deadline. But he did consider it worth the price because each player was signed through 2021, so BriseBois figured they’d be good for two playoff runs.
Cooper called Goodrow and Coleman the “final pieces” of Tampa Bay’s championship puzzle. Coleman, whose wife was pregnant with their first child when the trade from New Jersey happened and who gave birth to their second during the semifinals this year, is still wrapping his head around how this all went down.
“It’s hard to really comprehend,” Coleman said. “I have two beautiful daughters, I have two Stanley Cups. I feel very blessed, and I’m very thankful to be part of this team.”
It’s a team that has been built over the course of more than a decade, first by Steve Yzerman when he was GM and then BriseBois.
Big forward Alex Killorn was a third-round pick in 2007, Steven Stamkos became the face of the franchise when he went first in 2008, Hedman was the second pick in 2009 and Kucherov and top-line winger Ondrej Palat were members of the 2011 class. Yzerman signed Tyler Johnson as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and picked newly minted playoff MVP goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy in the first round in 2012.
Each of those moves helped form a group that went to the final in 2015, then reached the Eastern Conference final in 2016 and 2018. Missing the playoffs between those semifinal trips and getting swept by Columbus in the first round in 2019 after winning the Presidents’ Trophy gave the Lightning a certain reputation.
Now, after winning twice under the most difficult of circumstances, Tampa Bay is as close to a dynasty as possible in a cap environment.
“We went from the new kids on the block that oh my gosh in 2015 these guys are so much fun to watch, they’re going to be back again to all of a sudden it gets tilted and now we’re the team that can’t get it done to now you’re throwing the word ‘dynasty’ around,” Cooper said. “That’s a huge wave of emotions in a seven or six-year span to go through, but this core went through it together and it is coming back.
“But it’s so hard to win in this league,” he said. “Just a special, special, special group and who knows. I guess we’ll see if we can three-peat.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno