LOS ANGELES - Anthony Cirelli's overtime goal had just sent the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final and it felt like old times.
Lights flashed, the goal horn blared, and the winners dashed off the bench to hug each other and celebrate defeating the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference finals. Fans roared - but that's where reality intruded, because the cheers were on a recording played at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta.
Staging the Stanley Cup playoffs during a pandemic has meant playing in front of empty seats and taking elaborate safety precautions. Happily, those measures have kept COVID-19 out of the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles, but the absence of fans created a void that piped-in noise can't fill. Like the Dallas Stars, who clinched the West title on Monday to earn their first Cup Final berth since 2000, the Lightning deserved real applause on Thursday. There will be no genuine cheers when the Final begins on Saturday at Rogers Place, site of the entire series.
"It's been a little crazy," Tampa Bay forward Blake Coleman said. "But whose 2020 hasn't been crazy?"
Without fans there will be no one to uphold the tradition of booing Commissioner Gary Bettman when he hands off the Cup. If he has a sense of humor he'd allow a recording of jeers to be played as he comes out to the ice.
From the early stages of the pause he imposed on March 12, Bettman contended the season could be finished; to accomplish that the NHL had to play in Canada and change its place on the sports calendar. If the Final goes seven games the Cup will be won on Sept. 30, when training camp is usually finishing. Game 4 and (if necessary) Game 5 will be played on consecutive days. Next season likely won't start until mid-December. The financial impact of losing games and ticket revenue will bleed over to next season and beyond.
The NHL went to such great lengths to play because it got TV revenue to offset some of its financial losses and it got a place among the major leagues that found ways to restart or start. "We've been in a hotel for 54 straight days," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said Thursday, "and it was easy for people to say this might be one of the hardest Cups to win. It might be one of the hardest Cups ever to win."
Dallas was 1-2 in the new round-robin seeding games and then beat Calgary in six games, Colorado in seven, and stifled Vegas in five. Tampa Bay, 2-1 in round-robin play, beat Columbus and Boston in five games each and the Islanders in six. The Lightning added drama by ending each of the last three rounds with an overtime victory. "My fingernails are gone," said Lightning forward Pat Maroon, a member of the 2019 champion St. Louis Blues.
Not long ago, Dallas coach Rick Bowness discussed the uneasy feeling of living in a bubble with restrictions on movement, a factor that makes strength of mind more vital to playoff success this year than ever. The Stars and Lightning have checked those boxes along with the usual requirements of strong goaltending, timely scoring, and sacrifices on defense.
"It has been different, but there are two ways you can look at it," Stars general manager Jim Nill said. "In life you can sit and complain about something and wish it was better or you can accept what it is and make the most of it, and that's what we've done as a team. That's what the NHL has done with this situation and that's what all the teams that came into this bubble have done. ... Everybody has done an unbelievable job."