It shouldn’t have taken this long, and the Stars were lucky to not get run out of the building in four games, the sort of thorough thrashing to clinch the Cup and the ending the Lightning deserved. But there hasn’t been a sweep in the Final in 22 years. So the Bolts will happily settle for a six-game foot-in-the-ass-sideways.
Make no mistake though, the Lightning were miles away the better team. In no game did they have less than 55 percent of the attempts. In four of the six games they had over 60 percent of the shots. While Stars goalie Anton Khudobin and the Stars defense made a decent fist of it to try and stem the tide and keep the Lightning to the outside, the whole series felt like them hanging on for dear life in a gale. Such is the way with this Lightning team. And again, they did all of this with Steven Stamkos, one of only two former 60-goal scorers playing anywhere, being only able to play less than three minutes in Game 4.
We’ll have a fuller treatise on the Lightning later, but the NHL completed its playoff bubble without any major disaster. In fact, it barely had any kind of trouble at all. Still, it doesn’t sound much like an experience that anyone other than the Lightning enjoyed, and even they were quick to point out how hard it was to be without family, friends, and fans for their moment.
While it’s tempting for the mustard-stained among us to rant and rave about how they’d love to be separated from everyone, for the salaries these guys get, in a five-star hotel, we know from all of hockey and basketball (and baseball will find out soon) that the toll being stationed in one place away from those closest to them has taken. Seeing the exact same people, eating the exact same food, not always getting outside in a day, in some ways this triumph for the Lightning is even more impressive than a normal playoff run would be. These are obstacles that no team before had to overcome for two months and hopefully no team will again.
Was it all worth it? Probably, in that as far as we know no one’s life was greatly endangered or altered by getting sick, though that could be filed under “got away with” just as much as it could “triumph.” Still, for once the actual hockey was the feature, as this Final didn’t really feature anything like Brad Marchand licking people or suspensions for dirty hits or even overly dirty play. Maybe The Bubble even kept Corey Perry from getting out for his normal diet of small woodland creatures and groundwater runoff.
What it did for sure is keep the league from total financial meltdown, though how close it will come will only be known in the future. No league depends more on tickets sold than the NHL, and it’s still unclear when they’ll be able to sell tickets again. They got their playoff TV money, but now the injection of cash from the TV deal that would have come after next season has to be considered up in the air with all of this. The cap will be frozen for a while you’d have to think, and players will feel the squeeze as soon as a week when free agency opens. And that’s probably after NHL clubs embark on a downsizing that we’ve already seen in MLB.
What will also be strange is that the Lightning have no idea when they’ll actually begin the defense of this Cup, and they probably won’t for some time. If the NBA is sounding like it won’t begin play until January, it’s hard to see how the NHL could start much before that either. And the NBA only has one Canadian team, the NHL seven, so those logistics are even more difficult as the responses to the pandemic range so differently in each country.
Will the NHL try and play a full 82 games with a January start? That would mean another August or September finish, which would disrupt yet another season, and that’ll be the one with the new TV deal that you can be sure the networks are going to want to have in the normal slots ASAP. But a shortened season means less chances to sell whatever number tickets are allowed (if allowed), probably some sort of rebate on television deals, as well another negotiation with the players about pay reductions. The negotiation for this bubble and details went smoothly, but that’s hard to do for a second or third time.
The NHL will immediately vault into its offseason, with the draft in exactly a week and free agency starting a mere three days after that. When those new players or players in new places take the ice, no one knows. How many games they’ll play is also unknown. The NHL got through this one. The next step looks to be even harder.