Lightning needed to ‘feel failure’ before earning Stanley Cup success

It was 531 days ago that an historic 2018-19 NHL season came to an embarrassing end for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

A 62-win, 128-point campaign was washed away in six days thanks to the Columbus Blue Jackets. An out-of-this-world year from Nikita Kucherov, which saw him win the Hart and Art Ross Trophies, ended without the trophy he really wanted.

The disbelief stretched throughout the hockey world, but hit hardest in the Lightning dressing room.

“I think if we down the road win a Stanley Cup, I’ll be able to reconcile it then,” said head coach Jon Cooper after the series.

Some franchises might have overreacted with rash personnel decisions after such a thud. Tampa general manager Julien BriseBois did not. He had faith in his core. 

“The story of these players, the story of this team, the story of this nucleus of players and of this coaching staff, it’s not over, it’s still being written,” BriseBois said after the Columbus series. “The best and most memorable chapters lie ahead.

“I don’t know when, but I know that when we do it will be all the more sweet because of the disappointments that we will have experienced along our journey to making that happen, including the disappointment that we’re feeling right now because of the outcome of this playoff series.”

[Stamkos joins Lightning for Stanley Cup celebration]

The final chapter was written Monday night as the Lightning closed out the Dallas Stars in six games to win the 2020 Stanley Cup. 

“We’re going to be Stanley Cup champs forever,” said Victor Hedman, who was voted winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy. “Our kids, our grandkids, if they look at the Stanley Cup they’re going to see our names.”

Tampa entered the 2019-20 NHL season with one goal in mind: redemption. They’d been an annual Cup contender and coming off being swept out of the playoffs, the pressure was mounting.

“It’s easy to talk about now,” Cooper said after clinching the Cup Monday night. “In a team sport, I truly believe that failure, you have to feel it before you can have success. … You wear the bumps, you wear the bruises, you wear the heartache, you wear the feelings. You wear it on your sleeve, and it keeps you up at night, but it also drives you. The fear of losing almost becomes greater than the joy of winning.”

Instead of making sweeping changes, BriseBois tinkered. The biggest names moving out last summer were J.T. Miller in a trade with Vancouver, and Anton Stralman, who was allowed to walk in free agency.

BriseBois looked to strengthen his group, not rip it apart. In came Kevin Shattenkirk, looking for a bounce-back season, and Pat Maroon, who had won the Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues in 2019. The roster was bolstered in February when Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow were acquired in separate trades and Zach Bogosian was signed a free agent.

[Lightning had Cup heroes beyond Conn Smythe winner Hedman]

Their quest was put on hold in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. No one knew if the NHL season would end with a champion. When play resumed in early August, the mission continued for the Lightning.

Tampa cruised through the Return to Play. They won two of their three Round-Robin games, got revenge on the Blue Jackets, and knocked out the Bruins in five games. In the Eastern Conference Final, they dispatched the Islanders in six games.

The Stars stood in their way as the final obstacle. While Dallas took Game 1 of the Cup Final, they would ultimately fall thanks to a revived Lightning power play and Tampa’s best players rising to the occasion and depth additions making an impact.

The Cup celebration on the ice at Rogers Place wasn’t what they played finished their preseason schedule one year ago Monday. They had to enjoy the moment amongst themselves inside a rink without fans. But this is why they made the sacrifice to endure the bubble life for the last two months.

Those six days in April 2019 played a role in this Stanley Cup title. It showed the Lightning that no team is invincible and that the playoff grind is not one to take lightly. They learned that lesson and reset their focus. Now this Tampa Bay Lightning group can call themselves champions.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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