The Lightning can win the 2020 Stanley Cup on Saturday night. Entering Game 5 against the Stars (8 p.m. ET on NBC), Tampa Bay is one victory away from delivering its first championship since 2004.
Jon Cooper's club is 17-6-0 and impressively without consecutive losses in the NHL's return-to-play 24-team tournament.
Back on Aug. 8, the Flyers handed the Lightning their first defeat in the tourney when Alain Vigneault's team completed a three-game round-robin sweep with a 4-1 decision over Tampa Bay.
A consolation prize for the Flyers? No. The Flyers and their fans won't take any solace in the victory, but the organization is working toward being a true Cup contender again and Tampa Bay is a darn good barometer. The loaded Lightning look poised to hoist the Cup a year after they put up the second-most points (128) in NHL regular-season history.
Last season, Tampa Bay was stunned in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets. In these playoffs, when the Flyers beat the Lightning during the round robin, it set up Tampa Bay for a first-round rematch with Columbus.
It may have been a perfectly-timed defeat for the Lightning in their redemption run.
“It’s never bad having to eat a little piece of humble pie," Cooper said on Aug. 8 after the loss to the Flyers. "They’re a really good hockey team; I don’t even know the last time they lost a hockey game. But in saying that, good hockey teams make you pay, so if you go into some bad habits ... it crept into our game. Then they got the lead and they held onto it.
“They’re good, they play committed and they played a predictable game, we just didn’t play it as long as they did.”
With a second-round Game 7 thud against the Islanders, the Flyers fell short of meeting the Lightning in a best-of-seven Eastern Conference Final, what would have been their truest Tampa Bay test. But you can argue that in one game, the Flyers outplayed the Lightning more than any other club has in the tournament. The 4-1 loss to the Flyers matches Tampa Bay's largest margin of defeat in the playoffs; it also lost to the Stars, 4-1, in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, despite outshooting Dallas 36-20.
The Flyers looked deep and formidable against the Lightning in that round-robin championship. They didn't have Jakub Voracek or Michael Raffl but also caught big breaks as Tampa Bay was without Steven Stamkos, Jan Rutta and lost Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman in the first period.
The Flyers took advantage and got the best of the Lightning with goals from Nicolas Aube-Kubel (two), Joel Farabee and Tyler Pitlick, while outshooting Tampa Bay 30-24 (20-6 in the first period) and blocking 24 shots.
The win means little to nothing in the grand scheme, but the Flyers should at least know they can compete with — and beat — the cream of the crop. There's going to be a good amount of debate over the offseason about how close the Flyers are to taking that proverbial next step. The Flyers and Islanders went to seven games. New York took Tampa Bay to six games and the Lightning needed overtime to finish it off in Game 6.
During the regular season, the Flyers dropped two games to the Lightning in regulation — a 1-0 loss in Philadelphia and a chippy 5-3 loss in Tampa Bay with an empty-netter during the final 22 seconds. Including the round-robin win, the Flyers went 1-2-0 against the Lightning and matched them 7-7 in goals.
"We took a huge step forward," Claude Giroux said last week about the Flyers' 2019-20 season. "We’re very disappointed that we couldn’t move on to the Conference Final; we thought we had a team that was able to go further. It’s very, very disappointing, but at the same time, we took a huge step forward from last year. We’ve got to keep moving forward, keep building on this. We love our team, we like the pieces we have and we're all pretty excited for next year."
The Lightning are closing in on the Cup. The expectation is for the Flyers to get closer in 2020-21.