TAMPA, Fla. - Brian Engblom sat in the lower bowl at Amalie Arena with the Tampa Bay Lightning’s two Stanley Cup banners to his right and the team looking to add a third skating on the ice in front of him.
Reflecting on his days playing for the Canadiens and winning the Stanley Cup in the late 1970s, Tampa Bay’s TV analyst sees the makings of the Lightning growing a championship culture just as Montreal has for nearly a century.
"They already have," Engblom said Sunday. "You’re supposed to win it all, and creating that kind of environment is difficult and takes time, but they’re already there."
The Lightning face the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final starting Monday, a series pitting the defending champions against the NHL’s most decorated franchise. Tampa Bay is going for a third title since beginning play in 1993, the last year the Canadiens — or any team from Canada — won the Cup, making this a matchup of old-school winners against a modern-hockey model of success.
"A lot of people need to do a lot of good work in order to build a good organization," said Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois, who cut his teeth with the Canadiens. "Both organizations have really strong ownership, passionate fan bases, good coaching, strong support staff and ultimately really good players, and that’s why we’re going to be facing each other in the Stanley Cup finals this year."
Montreal is looking to hang a 25th Cup banner in the rafters at Bell Centre with a team that has plenty of similarities to Tampa Bay’s 2015 group. That was the last time these teams met in a playoff series, and it was in the second round.
The Lightning now are a grizzled group with a handful of heartbreaking losses and the 2020 bubble triumph in the rearview mirror.
Stanley Cup Championship replica banners went up around Tampa Bay on Wednesday, Jan. 13, including this one at the St. Pete Pier.
"It took a lot to get here: the heartbreak in 2015 getting all the way to the final and losing and then 2016 going to Game 7 against Pitt, losing that one, 2018 against Barry Trotz (and the Washington Capitals) — he beat us in Game 7 in this building, the heartbreak to Columbus in 2019," coach Jon Cooper said. "It was all building blocks to get to here."
Until this improbable run led by goaltender Carey Price, the Canadiens hadn’t won a round since losing to the Lightning six years ago. Qualifying for the playoffs just twice in the previous five seasons made for plenty of turnover, so this young Montreal team reflects Tampa Bay teams of the recent past.
And the Lightning have over time learned how translate the lessons that come from losing into winning.
"For us now, we’ve been in a lot of these series," veteran forward Alex Killorn said. "Just going through that you learn a ton. You learn how in series you’ve got to be even keel. You’ve got to realize that things aren’t always going to go your way. You might get a bad call, this might happen, that might happen. ... And I think the older you get, you might have just more experience."
BriseBois’ experience in Montreal’s organization as a young executive helped make the Lightning into a perennial contender. With an office next to Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau, BriseBois said he was "learning a lot more than I was contributing" and soaked up generations of Habs success.
After working under longtime Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman, Brisebois took over in 2018. Their combined knowledge from the Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings became the blueprint in a far more nontraditional market in Florida.
The Lightning’s 66 playoff and 333 regular-season victories since 2015 are the most in the NHL in that time.
"It’s tough to do nowadays with keeping everybody once you win," said Luke Richardson, a one-time Tampa Bay defenseman who’s filling in as Canadiens coach while Dominique Ducharme is in isolation for at least the first two games of the final. "Contracts go up, and you’re in a salary cap era. But they somehow did it. And they are a solid team. And it’s not just a one-year-off team. They’re a solid team built to win for a while."
Montreal wasn’t expected to win this soon, though this is the kind of postseason GM Marc Bergevin envisioned when he traded for defenseman Shea Weber in 2016. The Canadiens may be ahead of schedule, much like the Lightning were when they lost to Chicago in the 2015 Final, but it took some tinkering from management to get to this point.
"He did a lot of good things, filled some holes for us this offseason, and it’s paying off right now," Weber said. "There’s been some hard times, there’s been some good times, but it’s a part of the journey and a part of the story. It’s been a good ride so far and hope to keep it going here."
While Montreal is looking to end the organization’s and Canada’s 28-year Cup drought, the Lightning aim to join the 2016 and 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins as the only back-to-back champions since the salary cap era began in 2005. Tampa Bay won the last title before the cap went into place, which Engblom believes is part of the process of developing a winning franchise.
"You have to win somewhere along the way in order to really get people interested in a pretty new franchise," he said. "That’s the part you can’t compare. Montreal’s been around for 100 years, so that’s the huge difference. It takes time."
With Cooper coaching, Andrei Vasilevskiy goaltending, Steven Stamkos leading the way, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov producing and Victor Hedman controlling games, the time is now for the Lightning to cement their place as hockey’s gold standard. They’re four wins away.
"We know what’s expected of us and each other’s roles and we expect a lot of one another," Hedman said. "We hold ourselves accountable, and that’s been proven to work so far. One more hurdle before one of these teams is hoisting the Cup. But we’re super excited to be back here once again."
Wawrow reported from Montreal.