The Tampa Bay Lightning will defeat Tom Brady on Sunday


Tom Brady ruins everything.

I’m speaking as a lifelong New York Jets fan, of course. But I’m also speaking as a hockey fan who wants the greatest number of people to enjoy the greatest sport on the planet (sorry, marble racing) at its greatest time of the season: The Stanley Cup conference finals round.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are currently playing the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference finals. Game 4 of their series is the only afternoon game of this round, scheduled for Sunday.

Also scheduled for Sunday: Tom Brady’s first game with an NFL team that isn’t coached by Bill Belichick, nor has the majority of its fan base made up by guys nicknamed “Sully.” Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers face their division rivals, the New Orleans Saints.

“What time’s our game?” Lightning coach Jon Cooper asked. “Are we up against each other?”

Indeed you are, Coop: The Lightning and Islanders start at 3 p.m. ET. Brady’s nationally televised game has a 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff.

We’ve heard some grumbling within the NHL about this conflict between the two televised events. NBC scheduled the game in a time slot where it could lead into the network’s own NFL coverage on Sunday evening. But the midafternoon start means it’ll run smack dab into Brady’s debut. That sound you heard was a legion of Tampa sports fans cracking their knuckles before changing the station at 4:25 p.m.

“You have the GOAT coming here. The first game is against a rival in the Saints. This is still a football town. There’s no denying that,” said Jay Recher, a host and producer at sports talk WDAE in Tampa.

The GOAT is gnawing at a Stanley Cup playoff game that, in theory, could have started earlier to avoid such a conflict. Granted, a 1 p.m. ET start meant competing with the first-place Tampa Bay Rays against the … not-first-place Red Sox, but you take that conflict every day before going up against Tom Brady.

Especially when every set of local eyes on hockey are vital in a postseason that has seen soft audience numbers, even for the games that aren’t played on a weekday afternoon. Even more so when you consider how strong the Tampa market has been for hockey on television in recent years.

Look, I’m a hockey fan. It’s the playoffs. I think every sports fan from Tampa Bay to the Triborough Bridge to Temecula should primarily watch the Stanley Cup playoffs, and then flip over to see a 43-year-old quarterback throw to his former WWE champion tight end. Consider:

  • Tom Brady plays only on offensive series. Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy plays the entire game.

  • This is Tom Brady’s 286th regular-season game. Outside of the uniform and the helmet and the coach and the receivers and the offense and the franchise and the empty stadium, what’s really different than the other 285 games?

  • The NHL calls it “money on the board” rather than a bounty.

  • Our coaches get penalties for wasting our time with a replay challenge.

  • Please like my sport.

In the past, the NHL has argued that having hockey on against other sports that draw big ratings was actually beneficial, because more fans are engaged in watching sports at that time. It’s an argument the league has made countless times when the Winter Classic has conflicted with college bowl games that cut into their audience. But it hasn’t always worked out that way.

To have this playoff game up against Brady’s debut, not only in Tampa but nationally, could be the postseason’s biggest mismatch since Rangers-Hurricanes in the qualification round.

“People are going crazy because they’ve only gotten little pieces of him. There was no training camp or preseason games. The first meaningful snap for Tom Brady is going to be in Week 1 of the NFL season,” Recher said.

So Brady is going to steamroller this Lightning game as if it’s the Jets’ defensive secondary.

Or is he?

“It’s funny,” Recher said. “I think if this was maybe 10 years ago, I think it would be such a thing. Like, man, the viewership is going to drop off big time. But it’s no longer one of those things were nobody is going to watch the Lightning now.”

Part of this is because it’s 2020, and technology has gotten to the point where you don’t need two TVs to watch two sporting events: Now it’s a TV and a mobile device or a laptop. But part of that is also the strength of the Lightning fan base, which has matured in the past two decades into one of the most fervent and dedicated groups in the NHL. The kind that might — maybe — choose hockey on a day like this.

“This isn’t like a non-traditional hockey market. There are real fans down here. Even people that have moved here from other parts of the country, the Lightning are their team. There’s a record number of sellouts,” Recher said.

They’re also part of the fabric of Tampa sports. There’s enough excitement to go around.

“The one thing about Tampa sports that I’ve learned: I’ve never felt that there’s any competition,” Cooper told ESPN on Tuesday. “We’ve had Rays out to practices. We’ve had multiple Bucs. I know we’ve done the same. Tampa Bay really pulls for each other. When the Rays made their remarkable run a few years ago, we were all in it together.”

This Sunday conflict is very on brand for Tampa sports in 2020. WrestleMania 36 was scheduled for Raymond James Stadium, and was canceled. The PGA’s Valspar Championship was scuttled. The St. Pete Grand Prix stalled. The first two rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament scheduled for Amalie Arena were bounced. The entire run of Lightning playoff games have been held in hermetically sealed bubbles in Toronto and now Edmonton.

“Tampa sports fans have just learned to roll with the punches this year,” Recher said.

Yet with the Lightning in the conference final, with the Rays atop the American League, with Tom Brady seeking a seventh Super Bowl ring with the Bucs …

“What if Tampa teams win three championships in the same year?” Recher pondered, admittedly daydreaming.

“Well, it is 2020. If it would ever happen, it would be this year.”

Bubble fit of the week

Max Pacioretty is blessed with a name made for pun-titled HGTV shows.

  • “Patching Things Up”

  • “Move-in Retty”

  • “Max Cash Offer”

Plus the inevitable spinoff featuring three of his teammates: “Cousins Holden Stone.”

Three players about whom I’m happy to be wrong

1. Paul Stastny, C, Vegas Golden Knights. When I looked at Paul Stastny a few weeks ago, I saw a 34-year-old center making $6.5 million and not coming anywhere near that return on investment from a scoring standpoint: His 0.54 points-per-game rate was the lowest of his career. But when you watch the Knights, he makes an obvious intangible difference in a variety of situations. He leads the Knights in individual expected goals per 60 at 5-on-5 (1.46). A true “old guy who finally deserves a Stanley Cup ring” candidate.

2. Jamie Benn, LW, Dallas Stars. Two things about Jamie Benn. On the ice, he’s been great at 5-on-5, scoring 10 of his 14 points in those situations, and throwing his body around in every series. I think he’s been their best forward. Off the ice, and courtesy of the ESPN+ “Quest For the Stanley Cup” series, he does the captain thing behind the scenes better than his public persona might indicate he does. That $9.5 million cap through 2024-25 has never been justifiable, and the justification will only get harder as he gets older. But for a few playoff rounds this summer, I am down with Jamie Benn.

3. Zach Bogosian, D, Tampa Bay Lightning. For many years, Bogosian was the guy the Los Angeles Kings took Drew Doughty before, and the St. Louis Blues took Alex Pietrangelo after, in the 2008 NHL draft. That’s because his draft position led him to seven years with the Atlanta Thrashers and Winnipeg Jets, none of them resulting in a playoff appearance. Then he was traded with Evander Kane to the Buffalo Sabres, where he spent the next six seasons not making the playoffs. His tenure there ended when he refused assignment to the AHL this season and was placed on unconditional waivers. When the Lightning signed him, I thought he was a warm body with a solid beard. But he’s played well in over a dozen games, has averaged 18:59 in ice time, and at age 30 is making his first postseason journey. “He’s a veteran in this league,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He knows where to go. He’s got size. He can end plays down low.” And he’s better than I thought.

Listen To ESPN On Ice

Huge show this week. We provide an update on the action in the conference finals so far (6:02). Former NHL coach and current NHL Network analyst Bruce Boudreau talks about the difficulty of coaching in the bubble format, as well as what the future holds for him (11:12). We take a spin around the goalie carousel, and then talk player chirps with Thomas Drance of The Athletic (35:28). Plus, Reader Mail, “Phil Kessel Loves Hot Dogs,” and more! Listen, rate and review here.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Presidents’ Trophy winners

Bruce Cassidy of the Boston Bruins took home the Jack Adams as coach of the year on Wednesday, marking only the ninth time the coach from the team with the NHL’s best regular-season record won the award. It’s actually the second time in five years it’s happened, after Barry Trotz won his first Jack in 2015-16 with the Washington Capitals. But this award, voted on by the NHL Broadcasters’ Association, has ingrained biases for coaches who lead perceived bottom-feeders to the playoffs, as well as coaches who are hired in the previous offseason and during the season. The idea that Scotty Bowman won this award only once more than Orval Tessier and Patrick Roy is incomprehensible.

Loser: Recent winners

Another bias by the Jack Adams voters: No coach has won the award in back-to-back seasons other than Jacques Demers from 1986 to ’88 with the Detroit Red Wings. So while Trotz did another incredible job of coaching the New York Islanders after winning the Jack Adams last season, he received one second-place vote and nothing else in this year’s voting. Are there really 13 better coaches in the league this season than Trotz? Seriously?

Winner: Robin Lehner

He’s played his way into the Conn Smythe conversation with four playoff shutouts, and there’s strong speculation that a contract extension with Vegas is in the cards. To go from last summer’s one-year deal with Chicago after the goalie-musical-chairs game was basically over, to this potential glory and stability is really something. Also, he made this save:

Loser: Torey Krug

Krug, a pending unrestricted free agent, has indicated he’d like to stay in Boston. But Bruins GM Don Sweeney has been known to be less than sentimental when it comes to talented young defensemen seeking raises. “I would be the last person to begrudge any player trying to make the best decision for them and their family, and in a perfect world it’s with us, but we know that the world is anything but perfect right about now,” Sweeney said this week. “So again, I don’t have an update on any individual contract level. Torey’s personal voice, he’s entitled to say whatever the hell he feels he wants to say.” Detroit could be a nice place to live …

Winner: Sergei Shumakov

The KHL’s master of the lacrosse goal — a move he’s scored with in multiple career games — did it against Amur Khabarovsk recently. Avangard Omsk’s Sergei Shumakov — proud wearer of No. 69 — played 13 games in the AHL in 2018-19 before heading back to Russia.

Loser: Joe Sakic

Look, awards season is going to bring us the usual migraine-inducing voting results. But the idea that Sakic, the Colorado Avalanche GM who was universally praised for moves last summer that elevated his team to Cup contender status, wasn’t a finalist for the GM of the Year Award is just madness. Julien BriseBois of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Lou Lamoriello of the New York Islanders and Jim Nill of the Dallas Stars are the finalists.

Puck headlines

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

How Bill Zito went from being a perpetual finalist for NHL GM jobs to becoming the new man to lead the Florida Panthers.

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