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

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DENVER — The last minutes were ticking away for the Tampa Bay Lightning, together 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 within the third period of a first-round elimination game last month.

If the Lightning couldn’t discover a solution to rating in the ultimate 11 minutes of Game 6, their quest to turn into the primary team in nearly 40 years to win three straight titles would have fizzled bitterly.

But through the great fortune of a few favorable penalty calls, and a power-play goal by Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay forced extra time. 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 sport is 60 minutes and the series is seven games,” said Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay’s sagacious defenseman. “You never know when it’s coming. However it’s coming.”

For 3 years, the Lightning have just kept coming, and nobody has been capable of stop them. Now it’s the Colorado Avalanche’s turn to try.

On Wednesday in Denver, Tampa Bay will play the Avalanche in Game 1 of the primary unaltered Stanley Cup finals because the coronavirus shut down sports in March 2020. If the Lightning discover a solution to win, they may turn into the primary team to win three straight Stanley Cup championships because the Islanders won 4 in a row from 1980 to 1983.

“They’ve quite a bit going for them,” said Gabriel Landeskog, the 29-year-old Colorado captain. “But so can we.”

Tampa Bay’s first title on this string got here against the Dallas Stars in 2020. It was played in September as an alternative of June, in a so-called bubble in Edmonton, Alberta, with no fans in attendance due to pandemic-related restrictions. Last yr, the Lightning beat the Montreal Canadiens within the finals after a season wherein the divisions were altered to limit crossing the border between the US and Canada. When the finals games were played in Montreal, attendance was restricted to three,500 fans.

This yr, the N.H.L. has essentially returned to normal. Most conventional of all, perhaps, is that Tampa Bay remains to be 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 isn’t any small accomplishment: It has happened only twice because 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 just not shy about pondering why it has been a lot harder to capture a 3rd.

“One in all the things we speak about, not only this yr, however the yr 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 barely enough that you simply got your name on the Cup, you exhale and it’s OK, you get just a few mulligans for the following couple of years?”

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

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

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

Winning three titles in a row has actually already happened on this century, not less than to a person. 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 yr, he’ll turn into the forty fifth player to win 4 Cups in a row, and the one lively player to accomplish that.

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

Conversely, last yr’s victory against Montreal got here on the expense of Corey Perry, now a member of the Lightning. Perry has been a sort 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 after which the Canadiens.

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

At the least he won the Cup with the Anaheim Geese in 2007. But now the surging Avalanche stand in the best way. Colorado will probably be one of 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 each ranked in the highest 20 in points within the regular season, the Avalanche have the sort of talent and depth that Tampa Bay’s previous finals opponents lacked.

Sooner or later, the Lightning are likely to search out themselves behind in a game or within the series. They will ask themselves, again, whether to exhale and acquiesce or add to their greatness. For Cooper, his players have already demonstrated an awesome desire to place the Lightning bolt stamp on hockey history.

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

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