Three-Peat in Sight, Tampa Bay Lightning Face Tough Test

DENVER — The last minutes were ticking away for the Tampa Bay Lightning, along with the dream of hockey immortality. Winners of the last two Stanley Cups, the Lightning trailed the talented Toronto Maple Leafs by a goal late in the third period of a first-round elimination game last month.

If the Lightning could not find a way to score in the final 11 minutes of Game 6, their quest to become the first team in nearly 40 years to win three straight titles would have fizzled bitterly.

But through the good fortune of a couple of favorable penalty calls, and a power-play goal by Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay forced overtime. From that moment forward, the Lightning have gone 10-2 and won three playoff series to regain their pursuit of a three-peat.

“That’s why the game is 60 minutes and the series is seven games,” said Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay’s sagacious defenseman. “You never know when it’s coming. But it’s coming.”

For three years, the Lightning have just kept coming, and no one has been able to stop them. Now it is the Colorado Avalanche’s turn to try.

On Wednesday in Denver, Tampa Bay will play the Avalanche in Game 1 of the first unaltered Stanley Cup finals since the coronavirus shut down sports in March 2020. If the Lightning find a way to win, they will become the first team to win three straight Stanley Cup championships since the Islanders won four in a row from 1980 to 1983.

“They have a lot going for them,” said Gabriel Landeskog, the 29-year-old Colorado captain. “But so do we.”

Tampa Bay’s first title in this string came against the Dallas Stars in 2020. It was played in September instead of June, in a so-called bubble in Edmonton, Alberta, with no fans in attendance because of pandemic-related restrictions. Last year, the Lightning beat the Montreal Canadiens in the finals after a season in which the divisions were altered to limit crossing the border between the United States and Canada. When the finals games were played in Montreal, attendance was restricted to 3,500 fans.

This year, the N.H.L. has essentially returned to normal. Most normal of all, perhaps, is that Tampa Bay is still playing. The remarkable Lightning have won 11 consecutive playoff series, the third-most of any team. (The Islanders won 19 series in a row from 1980 to 1984, and the Canadiens won 13 straight from 1976 to 1980.)

Winning two straight titles is no small accomplishment: It has happened only twice since the Edmonton Oilers did it in 1987 and 1988. The Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998, and Pittsburgh Penguins won in 2016 and 2017.

Having been there and done that, Tampa Bay is not shy about pondering why it has been so much harder to capture a third.

“One of the things we talk about, not only this year, but the year before, is why other teams don’t get back there,” said Jon Cooper, who has coached the Lightning since 2013 and guided them through this remarkable streak. “Is it just enough that you got your name on the Cup, you exhale and it’s OK, you get a few mulligans for the next couple of years?”

With two championships in tow, the Lightning players could have exhaled in the final 10 minutes against Toronto. They could have taken mulligans after falling behind, two games to none, in the Eastern Conference finals against the Rangers, and stopped summoning that added effort on every shift, so necessary to win at the highest level.

Similar thoughts of satisfaction and capitulation may have derailed other successful teams as they approached roadblocks on the path to a three-peat. The Lightning, so far, have chosen a road that could lead directly to their dynastic ambitions.

“It’s taken so much to get here,” Cooper said. “Why not keep going? That’s been a big thing of ours, putting our stamp on history.”

Winning three titles in a row has actually already happened in this century, at least to an individual. If any members of the Lightning are curious to know what it takes, they need only turn to a teammate, the bruising winger Pat Maroon.

Maroon won the 2019 Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues, then signed as a free agent with the Lightning. If he wins again this year, he will become the 45th player to win four Cups in a row, and the only active player to do so.

“It’s just crazy to me that I’m going through this again,” Maroon said. “I’m very fortunate and lucky to be a part of this.”

Conversely, last year’s victory against Montreal came at the expense of Corey Perry, now a member of the Lightning. Perry has been a kind of foil to Maroon’s uncanny success. Perry, 37, is playing in his third consecutive finals. But he lost the last two, as a member of the Stars and then the Canadiens.

“You play this game to win,” Perry said. “You don’t play just to get here. It’s what keeps me going.”

At least he won the Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. But now the surging Avalanche stand in the way. Colorado will be the best team Tampa Bay has faced in its three-year run, said Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay’s veteran forward. With players like center Nathan MacKinnon and defenseman Cale Makar, who both ranked in the top 20 in points in the regular season, the Avalanche have the kind of talent and depth that Tampa Bay’s previous finals opponents lacked.

At some point, the Lightning are likely to find themselves behind in a game or in the series. They can ask themselves, again, whether to exhale and acquiesce or add to their greatness. For Cooper, his players have already demonstrated an overwhelming desire to put the Lightning bolt stamp on hockey history.

“In the Toronto series when we were down, 3-2 and there were no tomorrows,” Cooper said, “they gave us two more months of tomorrows.”