Lightning captures Stanley Cup title

by Gary Shelton on September 29, 2020

in general

Hedman was the Lightning's MVP./CHUCK MULLER

Tuesday, 4 a.m.

At the end of the gauntlet, they were alone on the ice, letting the redemption sink in.

The weirdest, wackiest season of them all was over. For two months, they lived in a bubble, far away from family and friends.

And now, it was over, and one after another, the players stressed one word to each other.


After all the pain, after all the shortcomings, after all the underachievement, the Tampa Bay Lightning are winners once again. They changed their image on the ice in Winnipeg, running from a deadly virus, gutting out victory after victory, proving that they were tough enough, talented enough, tenacious enough.

The old demons are gone now. The collapse against the Columbus Blue Jackets a year ago. The failure at the end of the Washington series the year before. The questions. The doubts. The reputation that when it came down to the playoffs, they could be pushed around.

But after a 2-0 victory over the Dallas Stars, the Lightning proved that they have the stuff of champions. As of Monday night, they rule the sport. And history awaits them.

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The Bolts smothered Dallas throughout much of the game, allowing only four shots in each of the first two periods. They settled back with a 2-0 lead, and the Stars got off 14 shots. But none of them found the net as Andrei Vasilevskiy pitched the first post-season shutout of his career.

"I thought it was a great moment for us," said Victor Hedman, who won the Conn Smythe award as the playoff MVP. "I never in my dreams thought i would win the Stanley Cup. It’s a dream. It’s so unrealistic. It’s what you dream of when you play growing up. These last two games have been tough mentally. You force yourself not to think about it, but you can’t help yourself. You think about it all the time."

The Bolts didn't waste a second chance to close out the Finals. But between the initial title of 2003-04 and this one, there were several shortcomings, enough so that the label of a team lacking something gritty had attached itself to the team emblem.

No more. The Lightning became the second major sports franchise in the history of Tampa to win a world championship. From now on, fans can debate whether this team was better than that one, whether these stars were taller than their predecessors.

"To win this, it’s been a grind," Hedman said. "It hasn’t been easy. But we’re Stanley Cup champions. We’re going to be Stanley Cup champions forever. Our kids, our grandkids ... if they look at a Stanley Cup, they're going to see our names."

The thing is that one championship team doesn't replace another. This team won't make you forget about the first title won by the 2003-04 Lightning. They'll just walk along together.

If you want to compare, there were similarities. Head coach Jon Cooper had his demons to exorcise. Back in the day, John Tortorella had years of losing to overcome. How about high-scoring Brayden Point vs. high-scoring Brad Richards? Point machine Nikita Kucherov vs. point machine Marty St. Louis? Goalie Vasilevskiy vs. Nikolai Khabibulin.

The Bolts were 12-3 in one-goal games this post-season.

"The beauty of our team is everyone was chipping in," Point said. "We got tremendous depth. We got contributions from anyone and everyone at different times, and that's what makes this win so special."

Go on. Debate. It can last until the Lightning wins another one.

There were so many moments for this Lightning team on their way to top. Remember Point's shot in five overtimes against Columbus? Remember Kucherov's goal with nine seconds to play against the Islanders? Remember Anthony Cirelli in overtime to close out New York?

Wait. There were more. How about Steven Stamkos' inspirational goal against Dallas? Remember Victor Hedman in double overtime against Boston? Remember Palat in overtime against Boston.

Great teams give you moments like this, a highlight film of great moments. They give you Vasilevskiy in goal. They give you a team that refused to lose two games in a row.

Yes, you can make a fine argument that Hedman deserved the Conn Smithe. Only two other defensemen have ever scored more goals in a playoff, and Hedman routinely led the team in ice time.

But how about Point, with 14 goals? How about Kucherov and his 34 points? How about Palat and Vasilevskiy?

Then, there is the ordeal that hockey presents. In all sports, all champions celebrate their accomplishments. But there is no grind quite like the NHL, a violent, jarring tournament that requires 16 wins.

So, was it worth it? Was it worth blowing a lead against Washington in 2018? Worth being embarrassed by Columbus last year? Both of those were the motivation for the team to add backbone to its roster.

Then there was the tournament itself, a free-for-all that lasted two months, with daily testing for players. Players repeated that this was the hardest Stanley Cup ever to win.

Maybe it was.

On the other hand, it may have been the sweetest.

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