There was a gleam in Kraken center Yanni Gourde’s eye last weekend when asked in Montreal about his memories playing there in front of friends and family in last summer’s Stanley Cup Final with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Gourde had just finished speaking about the Kraken needing to consistently play 60 minutes at a high-intensity level, the type of unrelenting style the Lightning have become known for in seeking to become the NHL’s first “threepeat” champion since the New York Islanders four decades ago.
The Lightning pay their only Climate Pledge Arena visit of the season Wednesday night, in the venue’s first game without COVID-19 masking or vaccination requirements for fans after King County lifted those this week.
Quebec native Gourde spoke in French to the Montreal media when asked about transitioning to the expansion Kraken from the two-time defending champions.
“It’s different,” he said. “When it comes to what I bring night after night, I try to bring the same things. I absolutely want to win, and as far as the little details within my game, I take a lot of pride in doing good things night after night. No doubt, sometimes it’s more difficult considering the wins don’t always come as easily as when I was with the Lightning.
“But individually, I try to do good things. And collectively, we’ve seen good things as a team, but we’re not consistent enough right now to have success in this league.”
Gourde went on to say the Kraken have talent “but not enough to win when we cut corners. We can’t cheat ourselves.”
The Lightning, of course, have the talent to take shifts off or coast through entire games (or even an entire week). But they are renowned for not doing so. It was only last week that they suffered consecutive regulation losses for the first time.
“They’re consistent in what they do,” Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said after his team’s practice Tuesday. “They’re all on the same page. They compete like hell in every area of the game.”
A handful of teams nearly won three consecutive titles since the Islanders captured four in a row from 1980-83. The Pittsburgh Penguins had the best chance when current Kraken general manager Ron Francis played there in the early 1990s alongside Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.
Pittsburgh captured Cups in 1991 and 1992, and the 1993 Penguins seemed a shoo-in to “threepeat” after winning a record 17 consecutive regular-season games, 56 overall and leading the league with 119 points. Lemieux missed 24 games coming back from cancer yet still managed 69 goals and 160 points, and three other Penguins — including Francis — reached 100 points.
But the Penguins were stunned in a second round of the playoffs, with a Game 7 overtime loss to the Islanders.
“After that game I went home and built a swing set for my kids with my dad for the next three days just to get my mind off it,” Francis said a few months back. “To this day, it still bothers me.”
Since then, the Detroit Red Wings won titles in 1997 and 1998. But in 1999 they finished third in the Western Conference and dropped their second-round playoff series to Colorado.
The Penguins had the most recent “threepeat” shot after Cups in 2016 and 2017. But goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury departed to Vegas in the expansion draft the following season. The Penguins placed fifth in the Eastern Conference and lost in the second round to eventual Cup winner Washington.
Even Wayne Gretzky’s powerhouse Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s couldn’t manage a threepeat despite five Finals appearances in six seasons. After winning in 1984 and 1985, they finished first overall with 119 points in 1985-86 but lost a second-round Game 7 to Calgary when Oilers rookie defenseman Steve Smith accidentally scored on his own net late in the third period.
The Oilers won Cups in 1987 and 1988 — giving them four in five seasons — but that third in a row proved elusive as for so many others.
Can the Lightning pull it off? Coach Jon Cooper’s team even getting this far during the salary-cap era has many comparing them to the better all-time squads.
They’ve bumped against the cap for years and controversially parked star forward Nikita Kucherov and his hefty salary on injured reserve all last season after hip surgery, even though it was believed he could have returned sooner. They did something similar late in the season with captain Steven Stamkos, but both returned for the playoffs, when cap limits don’t apply.
Still, they’ve kept losing players that were key intangibles to Cup victories. Gourde is an obvious one, but Barclay Goodrow, Tyler Johnson, Blake Coleman, Mitchell Stephens, David Savard and Luke Schenn also departed last summer.
But they’ve since added veteran forward Corey Perry, a Cup finalist the past two seasons on shutdown lines with Montreal and Dallas.
They also got Kucherov back in January, after he aggravated a groin injury from last summer’s playoffs and had surgery in October. Future Hall of Fame defenseman Victor Hedman is also healthy after playing four months with a torn meniscus in a knee last season. And star center Brayden Point returned in December after missing nearly six weeks because of an upper-body injury.
Also, perhaps the biggest difference-maker in Tampa Bay’s championship last season, goalie Andrej Vasilevskiy, is quietly replicating his previous numbers.
They’re finishing a long road trip and facing a Kraken squad coming off three days’ rest.
“You’ve really got to be excited for the opportunity and the challenge to go out and play,” Hakstol said Tuesday. He added: “We know they’re a hell of a team with a lot of weapons at each position and probably anchored by the top guy in the league in net. All that being said, you go out and play the game. And we’ll be ready to play when the puck drops.”
Last season the Lightning placed eighth overall but got it together come playoff time. This season they are healthier and No. 4 overall, though second to Florida in an extremely tough Atlantic Division.
And if they can survive early playoff matchups against Florida, or fellow division foe Toronto, or both, this might be the NHL’s most capable “threepeat” contender since Francis and his Penguins 29 years ago.