They won an NHL-record 62 games in one season. They suffered a crushing defeat as a heavy Cup favorite. They rallied and won it the following season with a team of future Hall of Famers.
Are we talking about the 1996-97 Detroit Red Wings or the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning? Both followed the same path, overcoming years of disappointment before breaking through as champions. That Red Wings team, of course, ended up winning back-to-back Cups in 1997 and 1998. So will the current incarnation of the Lightning keep walking in the footsteps of those ’90s Detroit teams and repeat as Stanley Cup champions?
From a pure hockey standpoint, the Lightning look as dominant as ever. They boast award-winning talent at every position. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy already has one Vezina Trophy and had the inside track on a second. Defenseman Victor Hedman already has one Norris Trophy and has a shot at a second. With GM Julien BriseBois gradually shaping his roster into a well-rounded juggernaut that can win in many ways, the Bolts blend talent and all-around hockey IQ as well as any team.
Hedman leads a mobile, two-way defense corps that has shutdown ability from Ryan McDonagh, puck-moving skill from Mikhail Sergachev and downright nastiness from Erik Cernak. The forward group has some of the league’s best two-way centers in Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli, not to mention physical bangers who kill penalties with aplomb such as Blake Coleman. Oh, and there’s the sublime offensive skill of Steven Stamkos and superstar Nikita Kucherov, who conveniently parachuted back into the lineup for Game 1 against the Florida Panthers and immediately started dotting the scoresheet.
So, yeah, the Lightning are otherworldly good and extremely balanced, ranking eighth in goals per game and sixth in goals against per game in the regular season, with the league’s No. 9 power play, No. 4 penalty kill and ninth-best share of shot attempts at 5-on-5. And that was without Kucherov all season.
Tampa is already up 2-0 on a very good Panthers team. As the reigning champions, the Bolts don’t drag around the anchor of past disappointments anymore. They’re chasing a high they’ve already experienced.
“You might think, when you win one, you’re going to become satisfied, but it worked the other way,” Hedman said before the playoffs began. “When you win one, you want to do it again. So I thought we were ready to go (in the regular season) from the start, and we didn’t look back.”
Tampa’s biggest obstacle in the quest for a repeat championship: history. In the past 30 years, just three teams have won consecutive Cups: the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992, the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 and the Penguins in 2016 and 2017. Why is it so hard to repeat?
Jim Rutherford, GM of the 2016 and 2017 Pens, feels there are just so many good teams now compared to the Original Six era when clubs could dominate their competition for years at a time.
“I’ve said this for 10 or 15 years now, anybody that makes the playoffs can win the Cup,” Rutherford said. “You look at Nashville (in 2017), they got in on the last day, and they went to the final versus us and took it to six games. With breaks here or there they could win that series.”
So what ingredients are most common across the three teams that repeated most recently, aside from the obvious facts that they had good players who already had won championships and were sharp all season because every opponent wanted to test itself against them?
Legend Scotty Bowman coached nine Cup winners, including the ’97 and ’98 Wings and the ’92 Penguins. He believes a distinct external motivating factor helped those two teams repeat and points out that, in both cases, it was a tragedy. After the Penguins won the 1991 Cup, coach ‘Badger’ Bob Johnson was diagnosed with brain cancer. He turned coaching duties over to Bowman for 1991-92, and Johnson died in November 1991.
The 1991-92 Penguins were playing for their fallen coach. Days after Detroit won the Cup in 1997, defensemen Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Fetisov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov were involved in a horrific limousine accident that left Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov with life-altering injuries requiring significant rehab. The Wings played the following season with heavy hearts and wore jersey patches with Konstantinov’s and Mnatsakanov’s initials.
“That was what was on our mind more, then when the season started in the fall, the players really wanted to make up for the loss of Vladimir and dedicated that next season to the both of them,” Bowman said.
To a certain degree, sadness clouded the Lightning’s 2020 championship, too. They won it after living in a bubble, sequestered from their loved ones for months, during the COVID-19 pandemic, which claimed millions of lives around the world. The virus also muted the post-victory celebrations aside from the parade. Players didn’t have their traditional days with the Stanley Cup in their hometowns. They’re motivated now to win in an environment somewhat closer to normal, with vaccines being rolled out and fans allowed in U.S.-based NHL arenas again.
“I still haven’t seen my family since we left last summer before the bubble,” Hedman said in April. “I had my wife and kid over here, but I haven’t seen my parents, my brothers. It’s been a tough year for all the people in the world, but (the Cup) is something that I want to share with my family. It just couldn’t happen because of what the world is going though right now…it’s just one of the things you want to experience again and, hopefully, the full experience this time.”
As Bowman also points out, the recent repeat champions also added some fresh blood, and having an impact player who doesn’t have a ring yet can spur the defending champs. The 1992 Penguins traded for Rick Tocchet. The 2017 Penguins traded for Ron Hainsey. The current Lightning? They traded for a big shutdown blueliner in David Savard.
So can the Bolts repeat? They at least have similar ingredients to recent repeaters: elite talent, an emotional off-ice motivating factor and a fresh face to root for. Would you bet against them? We won’t. That’s why, in The Hockey News Playoff Preview magazine, we picked them to win a second consecutive Cup.
This is an updated version of a feature that ran in the 2020-21 Playoff Preview edition of The Hockey News.