Prior to the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs, there was a lot of talk about asterisks. And there should be one beside the name or the team that wins it in 2020 to demarcate that it was the last team standing after one of the most challenging playoff tournaments in NHL history.
Which brings us to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who punched their ticket to the series that will determine who gets that asterisk when they finally put away the New York Islanders with a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final. Whether it’s after an almost five-month layoff because of a global pandemic or not, the playoffs are the most challenging grind in any sport, which is why it’s hard to believe the players have enough energy to even lift the Stanley Cup after they win it. And going into the final against the Dallas Stars, the Lightning are feeling the pain.
When he’s able to be in the lineup, it’s abundantly clear that Brayden Point is playing through an injury or an assortment of injuries. The Lightning are already without their captain and most dynamic goalscorer. They’ve played the equivalent of more than three additional games on the 19 they’ve played just in overtime. Their goaltender has played every second of every game and against the Islanders, they had to absorb an average of 54 hits per game, including a total of 137 in Games 5 and 6. Even Anthony Cirelli, who scored the overtime goal that propelled the Lightning to the final, left Game 6 after enduring a knee-on-knee collision with Anders Lee.
“I mean, to basically (score the winner) on one leg…” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “I’m trying not to disclose injuries, but it was pretty clear what happened on that. For him to come back was pretty remarkable.”
What’s also pretty remarkable is having a stud such as Victor Hedman on your blueline. He’s been averaging more than 26 minutes a game in these playoffs, the most of any player still competing, and is tied for second in playoff goals with nine. The large man looks daisy fresh despite the heavy lifting he has been doing. Hedman, for one, has no concerns about how much the Lightning have left for the Stars.
“We had four months of rest before these playoffs started,” Hedman said. “We’re in the final. We have a lot of energy and we’re super excited. This is not the time to think about how you feel, this is when you go after it. We’ve got to empty the tank. It doesn’t matter if it’s four or seven games, we’ve just got to go out and empty the tank every night.”
Cooper acknowledged that, given the circumstances, the 2020 Stanley Cup might be one of the hardest in history to win. The Lightning won their first two series in five games, which certainly helped, but the six against the Islanders could go a long way toward determining the fight they’re able to put up against the Stars. The fact that there is no travel is offset by the very quick turnaround time between the series. If the series goes five games, Games 4 and 5 will be played on back-to-back nights.
“I can sit here and deflect questions all day long,” Cooper said. “But the bottom line is to get this far, guys have to gut it out. You’re sitting in a position if 21 (Point) is going to play tonight…It’s so hard to get to this spot, especially here because there are no days off. In a regular playoff, you might get three off days between games and for this playoff round, there are no off days. The boys can barely enjoy this one tonight because we’re playing in less than 48 hours. Injuries mount in the playoffs, everybody gets banged up and you beg for rest when it comes to this time of year and it’s few and far between. Whoever raises this Cup, they’ll have earned this one, I’ll tell you that.”
But even after all the hockey, all the time being away from their families, even after being sequestered in a bubble for more than seven weeks, being where they are right now certainly beats the alternative. “As for gas in the tank, I guess we’ll see,” Cooper said. “This is unlike any other Stanley Cup final where we’d get days rest. If you were to tell me, ‘Hey, Coop, you get to play in the Stanley Cup final. You’re only going to get 45 hours to rest before the game, but you get to play in it,’ I’m taking that all day.”