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Stanley Cup Final Preview: Can the Bolts run it back?

Exterior of Amalie Arena

The Tampa Bay Lightning are back in the Stanley Cup Finals and ready to defend the title that kicked off the year of Champa Bay last fall. Taking the ice against the Montreal Canadiens starting on Monday, June 28, Lord Stanley’s Cup is Tampa Bay’s to protect – and hopefully, keep.

You can keep up with everything happening at Amalie Arena by visiting its event calendar.

How they got here

It’s been less than one year since the Lightning won the 2020 Stanley Cup, so it’s no surprise that a similar approach is what got the Bolts back in position to defend their title as the reigning champs. By putting an emphasis on defense, and trusting their star set of forwards to keep the scoreboard operators on their toes, Tampa Bay has *mostly* cruised through the playoffs in 2021 the same way it did last fall.

In fact, their win over the New York Islanders in the semi-finals was the first time in two years that they’ve had a series go to a game seven, a rare dramatic twist for typically-dominant Bolts. After taking down the Florida Panthers in the opening round, the Lightning quickly rolled through the Carolina Hurricanes in the quarterfinals, bringing them to the semis against the Islanders, and one step short of getting their chance to re-claim the Stanley Cup as their own.

It took plenty of back and forth, but ultimately the Bolts emerged victorious after last Friday’s nail-biter, a 1-0 victory on their home ice in Amalie Arena. That low-scoring affair may offer a preview of what’s to come.

What to expect in the Finals

Despite the Lightning’s celebrated second line – a crew whose offensive fireworks have made for plenty of big wins the last two years – these Stanley Cup Finals are likely to be a defensive one. The Canadiens arrive at Amalie with a stingy, defense-first approach on the ice that is built for playoff hockey. They’ve stymied plenty of good scorers on their way to the Finals, and the Bolts are likely to encounter plenty of frustration themselves, no matter how many games the series goes.

On the other side, of course, Tampa Bay boasts one of the best goalies in the world with Andrei Vasilevskiy protecting the net. Likewise, it was the team-wide buy-in to great defense that has paved the way for the Lightning the last two seasons.

While barnburners are fun, the anticipation and energy around any goal in this series will only build from game to game, making every breakaway and slapshot an edge-of-your-seat moment. With low scores expected, the margin for error for either team is exceedingly narrow. Think back to the 1-0 victory over the Islanders that got the Bolts here in the first place. All it takes is one miscue, or one power play taken advantage of, to decide the game in a single shot.

Prediction: The Canadiens made it this far by playing as a team that was greater than the sum of its parts (though it does have some elite players, particularly star goalie Carey Price) and playing as a cohesive unit. But in the defending champions, the Lightning will be the best foe the Canadiens have faced, bringing to the table a squad that operates as a single-minded team and boasts one of hockey’s best rosters. Bolts in six.

Games one and two will be played at Amalie Arena and will air on NBCSN.

Champa Bay year two?

When the Lightning won the Stanley Cup last September, they were leading off the celebration for one of the greatest years in the history of Tampa Bay sports. Following their lead, Tom Brady and the Buccaneers charged through to the top and brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Tampa Bay, becoming the first team in NFL history to win the Super Bowl in its home stadium. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays won the notoriously difficult ALCS, falling just short of winning it all upon reaching the World Series. The Tampa Bay Rowdies likewise made it to the championship round, but unfortunately were never even able to play for their chance to win it all (thanks, Covid!).

So, can Tampa Bay sports teams do it again?

By the numbers, it is incredibly challenging to even reach the NHL Finals in back-to-back years, let alone win them. If the Lightning were to pull it off and keep the Cup in Tampa for a second year, they’d be only the second team in hockey to do it since the salary cap era began. That said, they’re only four wins from pulling it off, and the oddsmakers in Vegas are counting the home team as strong favorites.

Across town, the Bucs brought back the entire starting lineup on both sides of the ball and every single meaningful person from last year’s title run – from Gronk and Brady and the bunch to the head coach and general manager. Sure, it’ll be tough, but the Bucs will be one of the favorites to win it all, and Tom Brady knows a thing or two about defending a title.

The Rays are on a roll

Cross the bridge, and we find the Rays hovering around first place in the division as they approach the midway point of the season, a distinction they earned *before* calling up the man that many expect to be baseball’s next big star, the already-impressive Wander Franco. Then a few blocks toward the Bay, the Rowdies are at the top of their league with a 7-0-2 record and a roster featuring 15 returning players from 2020’s run to the championship.

We’re not saying it’s going to happen again. But we also don’t think it’s a bad idea to study up on parade routes. After all, what’s that saying about history repeating itself?

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