History is against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Not necessarily in this series against the Maple Leafs, but in their quest to win a third straight Stanley Cup.
That hasn’t happened in 40 years, in this era of hockey, when even the best of champions have difficulty repeating championships let alone winning three in a row.
You have to go back to the 1982 New York Islanders, with so many great ones now gone — the general manager Bill Torrey, the coach Al Arbour, the first-line wingers Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies — and their defeat of a rather ordinary Vancouver Canucks side to find a team that won three Cups in a row. (They actually went on to win four straight and 19 consecutive playoff series.)
But since those Islanders wins, five different teams have won back-to-back Stanley Cups, but none of them have won three.
Joel Quenneville’s Chicago Blackhawks won three Cups, over six seasons. That seemed like a modern dynasty in a new-definition kind of way.
The Edmonton Oilers, in the days of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, twice won back-to-back titles, losing in between and losing again after their second two-Cup run.
Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins won two straight in the early 1990s and were upset in 1993, leading to the most recent Stanley Cup won by the Montreal Canadiens.
Leafs president Brendan Shanahan won two in a row with Detroit in 1997 and ’98 and then won another four years later.
And none of those teams had the quirky pandemic-related schedule and circumstances that enabled Tampa Bay to win their two.
You can put an asterisk of sorts by the Tampa championships, not because they won them or how they played, but more about who they wound up playing against. The first championship came in the bubble at Edmonton without fans against the Dallas Stars, who didn’t make the playoffs the following year and barely made them this season.
The second championship came against Montreal, the fourth-place team in the North Division, against a team that wouldn’t have qualified for the playoffs under non-COVID scheduling restrictions. The Canadiens followed up that Stanley Cup finalist run by finishing dead last in the NHL this season.
Tampa has held two parades — one after beating a team that wasn’t anything more than mediocre, one after beating a team with a great goalie, one great defenceman, and not a whole lot more.
You can’t decide who it is you are playing against, but you can look at the Tampa Bay Stanley Cup runs and wonder what might have happened had the opposition been anything close to Stanley Cup calibre.
Now, the Lightning opens up defence of its Cups against a Maple Leafs team that is deeper and stronger than the teams they defeated to win their championships.
Maybe they’ll win the series. They probably should win when you have Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal, Nikita Kucherov up front, Victor Hedman on defence and Jon Cooper calling the shots from behind the bench.
The Leafs don’t have an equal to Vasilevskiy, Kucherov, Hedman or Cooper. But they do have a 115-point team.
Only once has the Lightning finished higher than 115 points in any season: That happened to be the year it was eliminated in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
A Stanley Cup thought comes to me every year I’m asked who is going to win the championship. I think of the 1983 Stanley Cup final, when the Islanders swept the great young Oilers in the final. I think of the final game at Nassau Coliseum and the rather stunned Oilers players walking past the Islanders dressing room after the Cup had been decided.
There was almost no celebration in the Islanders room. There were a lot of ice packs and a lot of tape covering up bruised players and a few beers. They were almost too tired and too hurt for hoopla and champagne. Four rounds can do that to you. That’s what it takes to win the Stanley Cup.
That’s when the Oilers understood that they needed to give more of themselves. They won four championships after that. The lesson had been well-learned.
Tampa has pushed itself to the limit for four rounds each of the past two seasons. Not being up close, that can be difficult to understand. You can do it once, the way the Blackhawks did, and come back a couple of years later and do it again. You can do it once, the way the Los Angeles Kings did, and come back a couple of years later and repeat.
The most recent back-to-back champion — Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins of 2016 and ’17 have never come close again to winning a championship. They’ve won one only playoff round since.
It’s so hard to recapture that level. The emotion. The effort. The good breaks. The great moments. The good health. It all leads to championships.
The Maple Leafs are looking to win a round — and who knows what could come after that, if it’s accomplished.
The Lightning knows how to win. Maybe they beat the Leafs. But the betting here that the Bolts can’t defeat history. A history that says they won’t win three in a row.