The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars on Monday night to win the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals Series, 4 games to 2. 18 of the players with the Lightning in the NHL Playoff bubble have played for the Syracuse Crunch. As the photographer for the Syracuse Crunch since the 2012-13 American Hockey League (AHL) season, I have photographed and gotten to know many of those players.
In ice hockey, if you do not have a quality goaltender, you will not go far in the playoffs. Tampa Bay does not have to worry. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) is one of, if not, the best in the NHL. After playing in the Russian league for a couple of seasons after being drafted by the Lightning, he came to the Crunch in 2014. After a rough start, he quickly caught on to the North American game and eventually graduated to the NHL and took over as the number one goalie for the Lightning.
He was 7-0 in games after a loss in the drive to the Stanley Cup Championship. He was the closer most teams dream of.
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak came to the Crunch in 2017 after a trade with the LA Kings which sent former goalie Ben Bishop to the Kings. I remember a few Kings fans who were upset with losing Cernak. I watched him get better and better during his rookie year with the Crunch. At the start of the 2018-19 season, he was called up to the Lightning after 9 games and never looked back. He is a smooth and deceptively fast skater, has learned to read and defend against the league’s best offensive players and brings a physical game needed in today’s game.
During his time with the Crunch, he always wanted to see the photos I took of him. He would share them with his friends and family back in his home country of Slovakia.
Back in 2012, the Crunch changed their NHL affiliation to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa Bay moved their players from the Norfolk, Virginia area to Syracuse. Having just come off a Calder Cup championship run there, Syracuse fans were very excited.
One of the players was Tyler Johnson. An undrafted, smallish player at 5′ 8″ who took to Syracuse and lead them to a trip to the AHL Finals for the very first time. He won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award, too. Not bad, eh?
In 2015, he lead the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Finals with 13 goals. If he had not injured his wrist then, maybe they would have won it that year. I was thrilled to see him finally win it this time.
Ondrej Palat was Tyler Johnson’s Robin. In fact, the two have played on the same team and often on the same line since 2011. This season, Palat anchored a line with Superstar Nikita Kucherov and budding Superstar Brayden Point.
The line lead the Lightning in goals and points for the playoffs. Ondrej scored 11 of those goals. Seems every line he is on does well. Which is not a coincidence.
Lastly, the one player who I have enjoyed photographing and getting to know since he arrived on the Syracuse Crunch roster in the middle of the 2013-14 season is Yanni Gourde. Another smallish and undrafted player who’s Professional tryout (PTO) contract had just ended with another AHL team when Tampa Bay offered him a full contract. He ended up playing 215 games for the Crunch over the next 4 seasons. Over those seasons, his skating got stronger and faster, his shot became more accurate, his vision of the ice improved and his leadership skills grew. He was named an AHL All-Star and helped the Crunch to its second Calder Cup Finals appearance in 2017.
He made the Lightning the following season and was a key to a line in this year’s playoffs. The Gourde line used Yanni’s speed and tenacity to forecheck the opposing team while his teammates, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman used their size to hem the puck in the offensive zone. Their play and netting key goals to help out the top lines was something the other teams could not handle at all. Not bad for a little guy from Saint-Narcisse, Quebec, eh?
And to all the other Crunch players who are celebrating the Stanley Cup Championship, congratulations and I hope to see you again when I photograph the Lightning in the future. Keeping a fresh incentive for those young players back in Syracuse to keep playing hard and they’ll be rewarded.