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How the Lightning learned to be Stanley Cup champions

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The Tampa Bay Lightning eschewed tradition after Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, surrounding NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and hockey’s Holy Grail as a team rather than having it handed off to captain Steven Stamkos alone. The result resembled a jubilant class portrait on the last day of school.

The last five years were a harsh education for this group. Their 2-0 victory to eliminate the Dallas Stars, capture the Stanley Cup and officially pop the NHL playoff bubble was their graduation.

In order to raise the Stanley Cup, the Lightning had to lean how not to fumble it away.

“Once you get to the playoffs, the difference in talent between the teams is minimal. It really does come down to resiliency. Taking advantage of the breaks that you get along the way, and overcoming the ones that go against you,” said Lightning GM Julien BriseBois. “Once you have a good enough team to get into the playoffs, it comes down to who is going to find a way.”

Here’s how the Lightning came to understand that this is the way, and how Game 6 became their graduation as champions.


Freshman Year: Losing in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final

Nine Lightning players who skated with the Cup on Monday night all share the same wound.

“This is going to leave a scar, there’s no doubt,” said coach Jon Cooper on June 15, 2015, the night the Lightning were eliminated in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final by the Chicago Blackhawks.

After their second straight 100-point season, with 50 wins, this was the first postseason in which the Lightning were met with real championship contender hype. Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson were 24. Ondrej Palat was 23. Nikita Kucherov was 21, while goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was just 20, playing four games in that run.

“We’ve got a group of young men in there, but they’re kids at heart,” Cooper said, “and they’re crushed.”

For this class, the Blackhawks were the perfect professors. They were once the young team with enormous expectations, and it took them a conference finals loss to figure out how to win their first Stanley Cup of the Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane reign in 2010. The 2015 victory over the Lightning was the third championship of their salary cap-era dynasty.

The first lesson was about efficiency. The Lightning lost the Final that season with their tanks completely drained. “The margin of teams is so close. It’s the healthy ones that seem to advance. I think we stayed somewhat healthy. Then down the stretch things started not going our way in that department,” said Cooper, who counted Kucherov among his walking wounded.

The highest-scoring team in the regular season mustered just three goals in its four losses to Chicago, including a shutout in the Cup clincher. The Lightning were bruised, battered and burned-out, having tied an NHL record for most games in a single postseason with 26. Chicago, by contrast, had learned a while ago that the quicker the path, the stronger the finish. The Blackhawks won two series in five games en route to the 2013 Stanley Cup. Before facing the Lightning, they did have a seven-gamer against Anaheim, but preceded that with a sweep of Minnesota.

The second lesson was about how to win in the playoffs. The first five games of the Stanley Cup Final were one-goal affairs. Chicago won three of them by a 2-1 score.

“When this team only gives up two, we win a majority of those games. The pucks just didn’t go in for us. It was a tough time for us to go cold, have the well go dry, especially since we carried this on the whole year,” Cooper said. “There was a lot of fight in the dog, but it just wasn’t enough.”

As we would see in 2020, these lessons would eventually be put into practice.

There was another lesson the Lightning learned in the 2015 Final: That once you get there and lose, you then have a burning desire to get another chance at winning the Stanley Cup.

“The pilot light’s been lit to get back here,” Cooper said.

Of course, it helps if you don’t burn yourself.


Sophomore Year: Blowing the Eastern Conference finals Game 7 — twice

To reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, the Lightning had to win a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden against a New York Rangers team that had won six straight Game 7s. The reason there was a Game 7? Because the Lightning had a chance to win the series in six games, and were blown out at home.

They made the same mistake the following postseason in the Eastern Conference finals, losing at home in Game 6 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then they lost in Game 7 on the road, with Pittsburgh moving on to win the Stanley Cup.

It wasn’t a series the Lightning were expected to win. Goalie Ben Bishop was injured in Game 1 — the world didn’t quite know what the Lightning had in Vasilevskiy yet — and Stamkos was out for the entirety of the playoffs until making an appearance in Game 7, due to a blood clot discovered on March 31.

(Steven Stamkos, injured in the regular season, missing the playoffs until a cameo appearance in the Final. The more things change …)

They still struggled to score that one critical goal and get that one critical defensive stand, but the Lightning had another lesson to learn in this series about staying disciplined when your season is on the line. “Penalties hurt us. It sucked momentum from us,” Cooper said of the six minor penalties the Lightning took in Game 7.

In 2020, the Lightning were among the least-penalized postseason teams, at 4.43 penalties per game.

Of course, the biggest lesson from the Pittsburgh loss: Don’t blow Game 6 in the conference finals with a chance to eliminate your opponent.

They didn’t learn this lesson right away.

In 2018, a year after missing the playoffs — thanks in no small part to a season-ending injury to Stamkos — the Lightning were efficient, winning the first two series of the Eastern Conference playoffs in five games each. They were healthy, with Stamkos and their starting goalie both in the lineup against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference finals. They rallied with three straight wins after losing the first two games at home.

But they lost Game 6, again, this time on the road. The lost Game 7, again, this time back in Tampa.

The lesson this time? That the offensive wizardry that they’re capable of in the regular season isn’t enough to break through against a Stanley Cup-worthy defense. It’s something they should have already learned back in 2015, but once again the highest-scoring team in the league couldn’t put the puck in the net for the last six periods of the series.

“We pressed and pressed and pressed. They got the breaks that they needed, and we didn’t. Over a series, they probably earned those breaks,” Cooper said. “It’s an empty feeling. I feel like we had a good enough team to be where we were. I felt like we could have won every game.”

The lesson Cooper took from this defeat was to drill home a concept to his players in the following season: To learn how to play “the right way” in the playoffs. “We have to win games 2-1, not 5-4,” he said during the 2018-19 season.

The Lightning would eventually learn this lesson. But it would take the one of the most humiliating defeats in Stanley Cup playoffs history to get them to understand it.


Junior Year: The Blue Jackets sweep

Mortification is a heck of a motivator, and there’s really no other way to describe the Lightning’s reaction to getting swept out of the playoffs last season by the No. 8 seed Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round.

Their primary excuse for the disaster was, famously, that they were a victim of their own success: That the Lightning’s 62-win, 128-point regular season — earning them a share of the all-time record for wins in a single season — put them in a position where they didn’t have anything to play for leading up to the playoffs, while the Blue Jackets had played de facto playoff games for weeks just to get in.

“When you have the amount of points we had, it’s a blessing and a curse, in a way. You don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time. Then all of a sudden you have to ramp it up. It’s not an excuse; it’s reality,” Cooper said after Game 4. “That’s how it goes: You have a historic regular season and we had a historic playoff.”

There have always been two ways to read this. One is that it’s hard to flip the switch for playoff intensity, something that informed the NHL’s decision to give higher seeds the “round robin” in the bubble rather than a bye. The other is the absurdity of the best team in hockey being unable to adapt to getting punched in the mouth by an inferior opponent, which is what happened when the Lightning blew a 3-0 lead in Game 1. They faced adversity and they fell apart. They didn’t have the players to get them back on track after the Jackets derailed them.

This was the “come to hockey Jesus” moment that Cooper needed to finally send a message that had been sitting in his outbox for five years. This was the moment that Lightning management needed to make the necessary personnel changes to “play the right way.”

GM Steve Yzerman left in 2018 to become the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings. Julien BriseBois, whom Yzerman hired as his assistant in 2010, was named the new general manager in September 2018. Together they had built a core of players that was the envy of the NHL, through smart drafting, shrewd trades and yes, a commitment to analytics. They were the envy of the league not just for their talent, but for the management of their salary-cap space — something many attributed to the lack of state income tax in Florida.

The catastrophic loss to the Blue Jackets would have shaken the faith of a less confident franchise. Cooper was safe, having just signed an extension in March of that season. But would BriseBois slice into the core of the team, performing an autopsy to find out what happened to its heart?

He would not. In fact, he opted for a heart transplant.

Enter Patrick Maroon as a free-agent forward, fresh off a Stanley Cup win with St. Louis. Enter veteran puck-moving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, hungry for his first Cup and eager to mend his reputation after a buyout from the Rangers. At the trade deadline, BriseBois sent first-round picks to the Devils and Sharks for forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, respectively. Trades that were seen at the time as overpayment are now praised as genius, as those two paired with Yanni Gourde to form arguably the playoffs’ most effective checking line. Maroon and Shattenkirk paid off, too: For example, the “Big Rig” eclipsed Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin to allow Shattenkirk to beat him on the power play in overtime of Game 5.

In this way, the Lightning were reminiscent of the Cup-winning 2018 Capitals team. GM George McPhee built the core with assistant GM Brian MacLellan as his right hand. McPhee was fired in 2014. MacLellan took over, and eventually found the right veteran additions to augment that core and transform the Capitals into champions: players like Lars Eller, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and others.

Like MacLellan was with the Caps, no one was more familiar with his team than BriseBois. He knew what the Lightning needed. He sought it out. He set them up for a championship.

Let’s be absolutely clear: The Lightning wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup this season had they not been humbled by the Blue Jackets last season. It transformed them, from their philosophy about playoff hockey to the literal makeup of the team. It’s the second time John Tortorella brought a Stanley Cup to Tampa, in a roundabout way.

But to capture the title, the Lightning would need to spend their final year abroad.


Senior Year: The Bubble

Perhaps this is what the Lightning needed to break through: To be hermetically sealed into a quarantine bubble, first in Toronto and then in Edmonton, because of COVID-19. No fans in the building to create that extra bit of tension that would cause the Lightning to snap. No media crowding their locker room to ask about playoff disappointments, as they were relegated to Zoom chats. No travel. No family begging for tickets. No distractions. Just hockey, and each other.

“You don’t get to see some of these milestones in your kids’ life and your wife’s life. Those are the tough parts. That’s why, if we can pull this off, that will make it all that much more rewarding,” Cooper said.

Perhaps they were motivated to get the heck out of the bubble as quickly as possible, in defeating their old tormentors from Columbus, as well as the Boston Bruins and the Dallas Stars in five games.

Of course, the first game of that Columbus series was a five-overtime classic that the Lightning managed to win. Had they lost … well, one wonders.

The New York Islanders took six tough games to dispatch, with the last two games both 2-1 scores and both going to overtime.

The Lightning were 6-2 in overtimes. They were 9-3 in one-goal games.

They were 10-0 when leading after two periods. They were 12-1 when scoring the first goal of the game.


As BriseBois noted, even with the best playoff education, you need a break or two to succeed. The Lightning were beat up by the end of the playoffs, but were able to keep Brayden Point and Kucherov in the lineup. Dallas, by contrast, was missing a handful of valuable supporting players by the end of the Final. Obviously, having Stamkos in the lineup is much better than not having him, but it’s not as if this group didn’t know how to play with him out of action.

(The plight of Stamkos through these past five seasons is truly exasperating, as one of the most gifted goal scorers of his generation was faced with all manner and sort of health calamity. But it is worth asking if, during this postseason run, there wasn’t a little bit of the “Patrick Ewing Theory” going on here — as coined by Bill Simmons — wherein a team loses a superstar player and that paradoxically leads to greater team success.)

The past five years were an education, but every round of the Lightning’s 2020 postseason was part of a larger lesson plan. Maybe if they hadn’t had to fight through the defense and goaltending of the Blue Jackets, Bruins and Islanders, then the Stars would have found a way to frustrate them in the Stanley Cup Final, just as Dallas caught the Vegas Golden Knights off guard in the Western Conference finals. But the Lightning were more than prepared to break down the Khudobin wall.

It took five years, but the Tampa Bay Lightning finally learned these lessons. They’ve been a franchise of unequaled hype and expectations, a team whose success has transformed Tampa into one of the NHL’s most rabid hockey markets. They’re a team of star players who had watched from home as so many of their peers lifted the Stanley Cup. They were a roster constructed meticulously to win a Cup this season, deferring any salary-cap pain and difficult personnel decisions to the offseason.

And now they’re the 2020 Stanley Cup champions.

Class dismissed.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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