Lightning strikes twice as Bolts win title

by Gary Shelton on July 8, 2021

in general

Cooper guided his team to the Stanley Cup./CHUCK MULLER

Thursday, 4 a.m.

For now, they are champions, again, and that is enough.

There is nothing like watching the rehearsed steps of the last team standing, the way it smiles and waves, the way it passes the grand trophy from one player to the next, the dance steps as it moves from one section of the playing surface to the next.

The temptation is to join the celebration, to soak in the moment of superiority, to appreciate the moments you have enjoyed. There is nothing like a title to bond a team and town, to cement their relationship forever, to make you believe that somehow, you were a part of this, and that you share the attributes of toughness and talent and resilience that all champions share.

So enjoy this mini-dynasty of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who became back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions with a 1-0 win over Montreal Wednesday night at Amalie Arena.

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Vasilevskiy wins Conn Smythe./TIM WIRT

And know this: It gets better.

Tales of their exploits will last for decades, becoming golden and cherished. For years, you will tell their stories, and you will repeat their triumphs. You will talk about how they bounced back after losses, and how they killed penalties, and how they never backed down from a skirmish. You will tell your children about this team -- about Andrei Vasilevskiy and his ferociousness, about Nikita Kucherov and his creativity, about Brayden Point and his touch. You will talk about how Alex Killorn tried to come back from a broken fibula and leg surgery, because that's what hockey players do. You will talk about the hidden game of Barclay Goodrow.

Then you will talk about them some more.

That's what championships do. Regular seasons blur together, and most playoff runs fade in and out. But titles last forever. You still remember the 2004 Bolts, right? You still remember the 2003 Bucs?

This team, Team Ditto, the best title defenders Tampa Bay has known, will be like that. You'll talk about how no one messes with Pat Maroon. You'll talk about Ryan McDonagh. You'll talk about Ondrej Palat.

Oh, time is not a friend to greatness. It tends to pass by most dynasties, and eventually, it will pass this one, too. There are so many things in front of the Lightning -- the expansion draft, the regular draft (and trades), free agency. The team is above the salary cap, and that must be paid attention to. So perhaps two is all the Bolts will get.

And if so, appreciate this.

"We know going forward in a salary cap world. this might be the last game this particular group ever plays together," said Steven Stamkos. "I can’t say how much that motivated us. We talked about it midway through the playoffs. We talked about it going into game five of the Islanders series. ‘Let’s take advantage of this opportunity.  It’s not very often you get to play with a talented team like we did. 

"We just believed. It’s so hard to win the Stanley Cup, and then you do it two years in a row. You deserve to go down in history. This group, no matter what happens is going to be etched  in history forever. That’s pretty f-ing special. I'm so proud of the guys."

Which moment will you remember? A Point goal? A Kucherov pass? A Vasilevskiy save?

"It was all summed up when Webber loaded up for that shot and Goodrow stepped in front of it," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. "That kind of sums up the character of this team."

It's odd. The Lightning used to be a mess of a franchise, perpetually in last place, eternally a punch line. It was the team with the blurred fax, the team whose owner called his players pansies, the team who never knew if another owner even existed, the team that would later belong to "the Cowboys," the team that had a coach last 16 days."

Then Jeff Vinik bought the team, and thing got serious.

This time, it took the Bolts 23 games to win the 16 that it requires for a Cup. Last year, it took 22.

Of course, it helps when the Big Cat is playing behind the Bolts. Once again, he shut out an opponent to close out a playoff series. That's five straight series -- something that never happens. In those five games -- against Dallas in last year's finals and against Florida, Carolina, the Islanders and the Canadiens -- Vasy has faced 120 shots. None of them have gotten to the net.

You'll tell stories of Vasy, like the one where he faced down Josh Anderson on a breakaway, or how he was 14-0 after he lost a game. You'll talk about how the players always praise his work ethic.

You'll tell stories of Ross Colton, who scored the only goal in Wednesday night's game after a superb pass from David Savard.

You'll tell stories about Goodrow, and how he kept blocking shots, and how he would limp to the bench in pain. Then he would come back and do it again.

You'll talk about the penalty kill, which may be the most fun part of this team.

"It’s tough to have that soak-in moment," Stamkos said. "You're so focused. I haven’t slept well the last week. It’s so stressful. That was the toughest game I’ve ever had to play."

Vasilevskiy thought Kucherov was going to win the Conn Smythe. But how can you ignore Vasy?

"I still can’t believe it," Vasilevskiy said. "Obviously, the whole team deserves it. To have five shutouts in one playoffs, it’s all about the team. It’s not about me. it’s about our team."

True, but Kucherov was in the conversation. To miss an entire regular season and then to lead all scorers -- by a lot -- in the playoffs is a bold statement.

"The guy is a special, special player," said teammate Blake Coleman.
He's a big reason why we’re here celebrating. He’s on another level. I don’t know anyone else who could miss the entire regular season and come back and do what he did. "

Imagine the memories. Imagine the conversations. Imagine the banners that will someday fly in the rafters. Vasilevskiy will get one. And Kucherov and Stamkos and Point and Hedman.

You'll talk about them, and the way that losing ticked them off. You'll talk about how the goal would shrink behind Vasilevskiy. You'll talk about what an irritant that Yanni Gourde was. You'll talk about how calm coach Jon Cooper was, and how perfect owner Vinik could be.

You'll talk about this championship, and you'll talk about that one.

Look, the Lightning isn't closing down shop. They still are a hungry organization, and they have still have brainpower. They'll be good again.

But will they ever be as good as this team?

We'll see.


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