Tampa Bay Teams Continue Incredible Run as Cup Finals Open With Fans

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The Tampa Bay Lightning are back in the Stanley Cup Finals, the defending National Hockey League champs having vanquished the New York Islanders on Friday night at home in Game 7 of the semis.

The 1-0 win should come as no surprise.

“It shows the resilience of this group,” captain Steven Stamkos said of his Lightning teammates.

They host the surprising Montreal Canadiens at Amalie Arena Monday night in the first game of the best-of-seven series, continuing an uninterrupted run of success for the Tampa Bay pro clubs during the time of the coronavirus.

Since last September, the Lightning have won the Cup; the Rays captured the American League pennant, only to lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six World Series games; the Buccaneers, behind future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, won the Super Bowl over the Kansas City Chiefs; and now the Rays are again leading the AL East, while the Lightning have a chance to repeat.

“Last year, we found out we can win in different ways,” said Jon Cooper, the Lightning head coach since 2013 and the longest-tenured bench boss in the NHL. “It took a lot to get here.”

All this success has spanned multiple COVID-affected seasons, without fans or with limited numbers of people in the stands.

The NHL had 13 teams postpone 51 games during a regular season abbreviated to 56 games, as COVID-19 swept through those locker rooms, but none since the playoffs started in the middle of May, as mass vaccinations have reached teams and the general public.

The postseason began with nine of the 12 U.S.-based teams reaching the 85% vaccination threshold designated by the NHL to loosen strict protocols, and the four Canadian teams having been limited to at least one shot because of government restrictions.

The Lightning announced they were one of those teams to reach the threshold.

Considering it all, “it’s been a pretty remarkable accomplishment,” Cooper said about the whole experience. “Winning two in a row would really be something special.”

Even with the success, it’s been a bittersweet sports year for the Tampa Bay teams and their fans. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup last September sans fans, playing the entire postseason in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles.

A month later, the Rays played almost the entire playoffs and ultimately lost the World Series in soft bubbles on the road in San Diego and Arlington, Texas. Even the opening Wild Card round was played without anyone attending games in the Tropicana Dome.

The Buccaneers were the first team ever to play a Super Bowl on their home field, but the game was held in front of just 22,000 in Raymond James Stadium, which seats 65,980. About 7,500 of those tickets were given to local frontline heath care workers. The Bucs played at 25% capacity after mid-October and had to win three playoff games on the road to get to the Super Bowl.

“It’s been tough to get here,” Brady said at the time. “To go on the road and win another road playoff game is just a great achievement. A home Super Bowl for the first time in NFL history, I think, puts a lot of cool things into perspective.”

Last year, the coronavirus also cost Tampa Bay two rounds of the canceled NCAA basketball tournament, a golf tournament and a Grand Prix auto race. When the Raptors of the National Basketball Association were forced out of Toronto to play this season in Amalie Arena, they opened for home games in late December with about 4,000 fans in the building until the surging virus curtailed that practice for about a month.

Add it all together and the entire Tampa metropolitan area suffered an estimated sports-related financial loss even before the Super Bowl in excess of $400 million. The business that didn’t come to the Tampa area for Super Bowl week cost at least another $250 million based on the $572 million economic impact the 2019 Super Bowl had on Miami.

This year things are different. The Rays are again at full capacity of 25,000 in the Trop, although they are averaging 27th in Major League Baseball at 6,482.

The Lightning were also forced to open the season in January without fans in the 19,092 capacity-for-hockey building. They eventually worked their way to 7,000 for the first round of the playoffs, 13,500 for the second round, and about 14,800 for each of the four home games in the Islanders series.

The Islanders played their last series to a roaring crowd at near capacity in the Nassau Coliseum, which appears to have hosted its final hockey game when the Islanders won, 3-2, in overtime this past Wednesday. The Islanders plan to move to new UBS Arena at Belmont Park next season.

Having fans in the Tampa building this year made a big difference.

“It was in a hostile environment we played on Long Island,” Stamkos said. “Our fans rose to the occasion and rocked the building. It was an amazing atmosphere.”

“The fans came to play just as we did,” Cooper added.

After a season without fans, the Canadiens were allowed 3,500 in the Bell Centre by the Canadian Ministry and Social Services for their semifinal series against the Vegas Golden Knights. Though quarantines on the public still remain for individuals crossing the U.S.-Canadian border, the government health services allowed the two teams to travel and play the regular playoff schedule in the host cities. They will be able to do so through the Cup Finals.

The underdog Canadiens beat Vegas in six games.

It’s not optimum, but it’s certainly a lot better than where it was.

The Canadiens haven’t gone this far in the postseason since last winning the Cup in 1993. With 59 points, they were the 16th overall among the 16 teams to make the playoffs and survived a season in which the seven Canada teams were forced to play each other in empty arenas.

The 75-point Lightning are crossing the border for the first time since the Canadian bubbles, where last year the NHL reported no positive COVID tests. Odds certainly seem to indicate the Lightning will repeat as champs.

“It’s going to be a little different going back to Canada this year,” Stamkos said. “I don’t know how many fans they’re going to have in there. You don’t get to the finals by luck. Only the best teams get there. They’ve had a great run. They have a passionate fanbase there. It’s going to be a tough, grinding series.”

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