EDMONTON — The hardest Stanley Cup playoffs to stage may have been the hardest ever to win. And the contender that’s travelled the most heart-breaking road of them all can finally shed tears of joy.
Take a bow, Tampa Bay: You were no flash in the pan!
The Lightning can finally call themselves Stanley Cup champions again.
The final night inside the NHL bubble will almost certainly be sleepless and champagne soaked. The Lightning finished off a six-game series win over the Dallas Stars with a 2-0 victory on Monday, and were left to celebrate with the handful of family and friends inside an otherwise empty Rogers Place.
Steven Stamkos, injured for all but one game of the playoffs, put on his equipment to take part in the celebrations. This was the first time since the 1968 Montreal Canadiens that a champion clinched without its captain in the lineup, with Jean Beliveau coming out in a suit while using a crutch and having his broken ankle in a cast that night.
The record books will make the Lightning’s second ever championship look much easier on paper than it was in reality. The 16-6 record they compiled during these playoffs belies the fact that they played all but five shifts without Stamkos. It also won’t reflect the extra 216 minutes and 14 seconds of overtime required — the equivalent of more than three and a half additional games.
Then there’s the 41 nights the players and staff spent living behind fences at Toronto’s Hotel X, followed by a 24-night stay on floors 15-17 at the JW Marriott in Edmonton. The Lightning bonded over nightly dinners together and leaned on mental performance coach Ryan Hamilton, but the battle waged between the ears was nearly as intense as the one on the ice coming out of the COVID-19 pause.
“Probably the best part of this thing will be when we check out,” head coach Jon Cooper said hours before a clincher that saw Brayden Point and Blake Coleman score goals while Andrei Vasilevskiy posted his first shutout of the playoffs.
They will fly home Tuesday morning with a long-anticipated Stanley Cup.
This was supposed to happen a year ago, when Tampa followed a record-breaking 62-win regular season by being swept out of the first round by Columbus. That came with some soul searching, and an appearance from motivational speaker Jon Gordon at last September’s training camp.
His message: Own what happened, don’t worry about defending your position as an elite team and instead attack something new — wise words at the outset of an unpredictable 361-day season that seemingly never wanted to end.
Remember the Lightning had lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final three times during the Stamkos Era — 2011, 2016 and 2018 — and were beaten by Chicago in a six-game Stanley Cup Final in 2015.
They knocked and knocked and knocked until finally puncturing the bubble..
As much as this championship run was boosted by some bold moves from general manager Julien BriseBois, it was his patience with the core that truly paid off. Victor Hedman logged more than 26 minutes per game in the playoffs and scored 10 goals, the third-highest total by a defenceman in history; Point led all skaters with 14 goals and produced three multi-point games in the Final; Nikita Kucherov established a new playoff assists record for wingers (27) and led all scorers (34); and Vasilevskiy played every minute in goal with a shiny .926 save percentage.
Even Stamkos contributed. Suffering from an undisclosed lower-body injury following core muscle surgery in March, he was only able to return for five shifts in the first period of Game 3 against Dallas.
And, wouldn’t you know it, he broke free and scored a goal-scorer’s goal on the only shot he registered.
“To be honest I didn’t think he was playing at all in these playoffs. I don’t think any of us did,” Cooper said of Stamkos. “So he gave us 2:47 of brilliant hockey, that’s a phenomenal story.
“He scored a huge goal for us in a win.”
The Lightning had to steel themselves right from the beginning of Round 1.
In a rematch with Columbus, the opening game lasted more than six hours before Point scored the winner in quintuple overtime. That series showed the value of Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, who were both acquired at the trade deadline for first-round picks and dropped onto an effective third line with Yanni Gourde.
Luke Schenn, Zach Bogosian and Pat Maroon — all free-agent signings from the prior 15 months — each had moments during the series wins over Boston and the New York Islanders that followed.
And Kevin Shattenkirk, signed in August 2019 after being bought out by the Rangers, scored an overtime winner for the Lightning in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.
In addition to shifting the roster mix, there was a change in approach. The Lightning were still more talented than pretty much every team they came up against this season, but they started to focus more on the goals they could prevent than the ones they could score.
“Maybe our mentality has changed a little bit. We pay attention all over the ice,” said Hedman.
“We used to be a team that wasn’t good enough to beat you 3-0,” added Cooper. “We had to beat you 9-0.”
They chased this breakthrough for a long, long time.
Stamkos and Hedman were young members of the squad that played three rounds in 2011. They were eventually joined by Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson and Cooper following their Calder Cup win with AHL Norfolk in 2012. That group was then bolstered by the emergence of Kucherov and Point, second- and third-round picks, respectively, who would go in the first pick or two of any redraft done today.
Anthony Cirelli, who clinched the Eastern Conference Final with an overtime goal, represents more value mined out of the third round. Vasilevskiy made good on his promise as a 19th overall selection. Mikhail Sergachev arrived via the Jonathan Drouin trade, Ryan McDonagh was acquired in 2018 for Vlad Namestnikov and a first-rounder and Erik Cernak was added in the Ben Bishop deal.
Through all the ups and downs, BriseBois and his predecessor Steve Yzerman didn’t touch the core. Even after the embarrassment of becoming the first Presidents’ Trophy winners to be swept in the first round last year, plus an uninspiring 17-13-4 start to the 2019-20 season, BriseBois kept searching for the right complement to his stars.
The Lightning had won more games, scored more goals and played in more playoff series than any team over the last six seasons. Finally they have a championship to show for all that time spent in the NHL’s penthouse.
“Everyone says this is the hardest trophy to win in sports and that doesn’t do it justice,” said BriseBois. “It is incredibly hard, you need a lot of things to go your way. Obviously you need a lot of good players, you need resiliency, you need breaks.”
They’ve finally done it.
The journey, the entire thing, was worth it.