Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 8, 2021

Celebrating Winners, And Losers Too

There were winners on Wednesday, as there are every day in sports.  Novak Djokovic, the Seattle Storm, England’s men’s soccer team, the Miami Marlins in stunning fashion over the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second night in a row – all reminded us that triumph is the point of our games.  Surely the day’s biggest winner was the Tampa Bay Lightning, which capped a dominant run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 1-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, closing out the Finals in just five games and making the Lightning the first club to defend its title since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017.  Through the four rounds of the playoffs Tampa Bay was behind in a series only once, after a Game 1 loss to the Islanders in the semifinals.  That was also the only round in which the Lightning were pushed to a full seven games.

As impressive as those numbers are, they don’t tell the full story of Tampa Bay’s recent success.  The team has not just won eight straight playoff series – a requirement for winning back-to-back titles – but has also held its opponents to an average of less than two wins each while doing so.  This year marked the third time in seven seasons that the Lightning advanced to the Finals, and in the four seasons between losing to Chicago in 2015 and defeating Dallas in the NHL’s pandemic playoff bubble barely more than nine months ago, Tampa Bay just missed two more trips to the NHL’s championship series, losing in the Conference Finals to the Penguins in 2016 and the Capitals in 2018.  Both of those matchups went to seven games and both times the franchise that ousted the Lightning went on to capture the Cup.

In the sixteen seasons since the 2004-05 season was lost to the lockout that led to the NHL’s hard salary cap, Tampa Bay has been a rare case of sustained success.  Fifteen franchises have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals exactly once during that period, with two more making it that far twice, either back-to-back (Detroit), or in a three-year period (L.A.).  Only Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston have joined the Lightning in going to the Finals more than that, and given Tampa Bay’s additional near misses, it’s understandable that every fan in the capacity crowd at Amalie Arena that roared its approval when captain Steven Stamkos lifted the Cup and began his victory circuit around the rink believes their team deserves to be called a dynasty.

Clearly the Lightning have navigated the perilous waters of the NHL’s salary cap era with far happier results than most of the league’s franchises.  Yet even Tampa Bay has had its missteps.  The franchise won its first Cup the year before the lockout, but struggled for multiple seasons when play finally resumed under the NHL’s new financial rules, missing the playoffs five times in six years.  And just two seasons ago, the Lightning tallied a franchise-best 62 wins the last time the league played a full 82-game schedule, easily winning the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record, only to collapse in the playoffs, losing four straight to Columbus in the first round.

So while they may not want to think about it this week, even the Lightning faithful know what all fans learn by enduring the vagaries of multiple seasons of their favorite team, some played in the bright sun of achievement and others in the dark shadow of despair.  Contrary to the words of Red Sanders, the head football coach at UCLA more than six decades ago, winning is not the only thing.  Our sports are zero sum games, and while the victors may earn every day’s headlines, sometimes the vanquished have stories every bit as interesting.  It takes nothing away from Tampa Bay’s triumph to suggest that such was the case with the Lightning’s final opponent in this year’s NHL postseason.

Back-to-back titles and three Finals appearances in seven seasons constitute quite the resume for most NHL franchises, but not for the Montreal Canadiens.  The team recognized as the oldest continuously operating professional ice hockey squad in the world, a franchise that predates the NHL’s founding, the twenty-four championships won by the Canadiens dwarf the thirteen claimed by the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team in second place on the all-time list of Stanley Cup winners.  Montreal’s thirty-five appearances in the Finals are also by far the most of any club.  Both numbers rank second only to the New York Yankees as measures of postseason success among the major North American sports leagues.  It’s possible there are still folks out there surprised to learn that Florida is home to an NHL powerhouse, but any fan with even a passing interest in hockey would surely recognize the bleu-blanc-rouge tricolor sweaters of the Habs (though they might not be familiar with the club’s many nicknames).

Yet for all the team’s storied history, Montreal’s recent past has been anything but magnifique.  The Canadiens most recent title came in 1993, which was also the last time the club skated in the Finals.  Prior to this year’s postseason run, the team had not won a playoff series in five years.  This season Montreal changed coaches in the middle of the campaign and was one of just two teams in the postseason bracket that failed to win at least half its games.  With 59 points, on a record of 24-21-11, the Canadiens had the weakest regular season showing of any team in the playoffs, and probably would not have been in the postseason at all but for the NHL’s truncated season and its one-time only alignment that put all seven Canada-based teams in the same division to eliminate cross-border travel during the pandemic, with the top four guaranteed to advance to the playoffs.

Given that opportunity, Montreal did its best to play the part of Cinderella.  Down three games to one against Toronto in the opening round, the Canadiens stormed back to win three in a row, the first two in overtime.  That was followed by a sweep of the Winnipeg Jets and another improbable series win against Las Vegas, a team that won sixteen more regular season contests than Montreal.  The hero throughout was Carey Price, the Canadiens’ veteran netminder who would surely have won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP had Montreal completed its unlikely journey to glory.

But the Cinderella story is a fairy tale, and in real life the regal coach usually turns back into a pumpkin and the horses drawing it to mice before the final horn blows.  In the Finals Price was outplayed by his counterpart in the opposite net, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who took home MVP honors after shutting out Tampa Bay’s opponents, including the Canadiens, in the deciding game of each playoff round.  In Montreal, and for that matter in all of Canada, which inexplicably has not been home to a Stanley Cup winning franchise since the Canadiens last skated to glory, the long wait continues, even as the party in Tampa is just getting started.  Still, the faithful of Les Habitants can take some solace in knowing that their team’s story will also be remembered long after Wednesday’s headlines have faded away.

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