NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
The time of year may have been different than usual, but the Lightning had the typical amount of days off between winning the Stanley Cup and opening night for the new season. The COVID-19 pandemic ensured that their off-season celebration wouldn’t be as big as previous NHL champions, however.
It’s been 107 days since Steven Stamkos lifted the Cup above his head inside Rogers Place in Edmonton. The night marked the second title in franchise history, and even with change in the three and a half months since the Lightning remain a heavy favorite to win again.
Time has shown that such an accomplishment is difficult. Only the Penguins (1991/1992, 2016/2017) and the Red Wings (1997/1998) have managed to win back-to-back championships since 1991. It’s a mighty task of playing over 100 games to win one, let alone go through a short summer and do it all again. Talent, luck, and breaks along the way help. Already the Lightning have seen losses — Zach Bogosian, Kevin Shattenkirk, Cedric Paquette, Braydon Coburn — from that night in Edmonton. They’ll also be without leading scorer Nikita Kucherov for the regular season after hip surgery. His 1.42 points per game are third-most in the NHL since 2018-19.
“It’s not too often that you bring a lot of the same players back from a championship team,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “Certainly, we lost a few big pieces no doubt, but I think our group’s excited again to start building this year and realize the challenge ahead defending our championship and playing a unique schedule and unique season. I think there’s a lot of adversity right off the hop for our group to wrap our minds around, and I think we’re pretty anxious to see how we start.”
Realignment means the Lightning will have new division mates in the Central, which features the Hurricanes, Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, Stars, Red Wings, Panthers, and Predators. Tampa will play each team eight times in the 56-game schedule back home at AMALIE Arena.
Playing outside of a bubble means extra COVID-19 precautions for players. No more group dinners, and it’s to the rink and back to the hotel when on the road to limit exposure. There will be positive tests during the season, and the league and teams will need to adapt, but as the vaccine roll-out continues, there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s only a natural progression as we move forward and the vaccine comes out to kind of let your guard down, but we have to make sure we don’t, especially these next few months,” said head coach Jon Cooper. “And I think part of that too was the feeling we had at the end of September. It was a hell of a feeling, and if we want to repeat that, we need the players we have on the ice.”
There are plenty of hurdles that stand in the way of a defending champion. This year there are more than enough for the Lightning. They know this and understanding those challenges
“Why is it so hard to win two [Stanley Cups] in a row?” said general manager Julien BriseBois. “Because it’s really, really hard to win one. It’s incredibly hard to win one, and now you’re trying to beat those odds two years in a row. It’s a significant challenge.”
Pat Maroon is the only player with multiple Cup rings on the Lightning roster. Winning in 2019 with the Blues and last summer with Tampa, he knows what it takes individually to make it back to the top. His first championship experience allowed him to identify the traits of a title contender, one he wound discover in his first season with the Lightning.
The Lightning went through a unique road to win a title. The winning feeling was something many on the team had never experienced. It’s a contagious one, too. Tampa’s Stanley Cup window remains wide open and they’re eager to keep their title of champions.
“The way I look at it is I know a lot of guys that have won the Cup, but I don’t know many that have won two,” said forward Alex Killorn. “Why not be one of those guys? We’ve got one [Maroon] in our dressing room. When he walks around, everyone knows him as the two Cup guy. We’re the one Cup guys.
“I think for us, we know we can do it now. We’ve been there. You’re even more hungry to get another one.”