Lightning keep the Stanley Cup after beating Canadiens

By Ben Shpigel

In one of hockey’s most cherished rites, the Stanley Cup usually spends the offseason gallivanting with players around villages in Canada and hamlets throughout Scandinavia and burgs across the United States. But with the coronavirus pandemic raging last fall, the silver chalice lingered for a good, long while near Tampa, Florida, where the Lightning relished their time with it so much that they went ahead and won it once more.

Tampa Bay closed a chaotic NHL season dominated by a viral scourge, with truncated schedules and reconfigured divisions and traveling practice squads, by defeating the Montreal Canadiens four games to one in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final to win its third title.

Nine-and-a-half months after enduring a 65-day stay in Canadian playoff bubbles to hoist the Cup, the Lightning edged Montreal, 1-0, in front of a capacity home crowd at Amalie Arena on Wednesday night to complete their second consecutive romp through an NHL postseason. In doing so, they followed up the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers by adding yet another title to a region suddenly spoiled by championships, and also joined the Pittsburgh Penguins, in 2016-17, as the only teams since the dawn of the salary cap era in the 2005-6 season to repeat as champions.

“It was just like we were doing it for the first time again,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It was amazing to have fans in the building. And so it’s like we’ve won two completely different Stanley Cups. That’s what makes it extremely special for us.”

In winning their past eight playoff series, the Lightning have never lost consecutive games. In this series, they did not trail until late in the first period of Game 4 against the upstart Canadiens, who finished 18th among 31 teams during the regular season — and with a negative goal differential — but energized Montreal with a glorious charge to their first finals appearance in nearly three decades.

Bidding to become Canada’s first champion since 1993, the Canadiens outlasted Toronto, Winnipeg and Vegas. But they could not counter the comprehensive excellence of the Lightning, who outclassed Montreal at every position, especially goalie.

Even as Carey Price rescued the Canadiens in Game 4 on Monday and stopped 29 of 30 shots Wednesday, he could not match Andrei Vasilevskiy, who reinforced his standing as the league’s best goalie. He had a .943 save percentage against Montreal, allowing eight goals on 140 shots, and ended this series with a shutout — as he did last round against the New York Islanders, and in the second round against the Carolina Hurricanes, and in the first round against the Florida Panthers.

“I still can’t believe it,” said Vasilevskiy, who was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the MVP of the playoffs. “The whole team deserves it, for sure. To have five shutouts in one playoffs, it’s all about the team.”

The Lightning represent the modern ideal of an NHL team, loaded with scorers, elite defensemen and a brilliant goalie, and they rampaged through the playoffs after regaining star winger Nikita Kucherov, who missed the 56-game season while recovering from hip surgery. All he did was amass 32 points in 23 games to join Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux as the only players with at least 30 points in consecutive postseasons.

“I don’t know anybody else that could miss the entire regular season, come back and do what he did,” Lightning forward Blake Coleman said.

Still, Tampa Bay’s most imposing asset might be its depth. Anthony Cirelli and Barclay Goodrow blocked shot after shot, Erik Cernak and Jan Rutta backchecked with vigor, and David Savard and the rookie Ross Colton — the only two players in the lineup who hadn’t won a Cup — combined for Wednesday’s lone goal: Savard, a late-season acquisition, received the puck from Ryan McDonagh and beamed a nifty pass into the crease toward Colton, who outmuscled Montreal defenseman Joel Edmundson for position and redirected the puck past Price with 6 minutes, 33 seconds remaining in the second period. The Lightning’s defensive commitment — epitomized by Goodrow’s block of Shea Weber’s slap shot — made certain they didn’t need to score again.

“I was crying basically on the bench with a minute, 40 left,” said forward Patrick Maroon, who has raised the Cup for three straight seasons. “I couldn’t even throw my stuff off.”

The last Canadian team to win the Cup was Montreal, in 1993, the same year that Tampa Bay, heralding the NHL’s Sun Belt expansion, completed its inaugural season. The Lightning won their first title in 2004, then meandered in the NHL wilderness for the next decade, winning only two playoff series until embarking on this dynastic stretch.

No team has won more games since the 2014-15 season — in either the regular season or the playoffs — than Tampa Bay, which has reached at least the league’s semifinal round five of the past seven years. The Lightning’s flair for developing young players has replenished their talent base, and their masterly manipulation of the salary cap has preserved much of the core that lost in the finals to Chicago in 2015, a core that has transformed and evolved, in style and spirit and personnel.

A team that had embraced what Cooper called a “kind of greatest show on ice” attitude, that tried to score as many goals as it could while depending on its goalie to rescue it, needed to get “grittier” after in 2019 absorbing one of the more confounding postseason meltdowns in major professional sports history: After dashing to 62 victories in 82 games, tying a league record, the Lightning were swept in four games by Columbus in the first round.

“We went from the new kids on the block that, oh my gosh, in 2015, these guys are so much fun to watch, to all of a sudden it gets tilted and now we’re the team that can’t get it done to now you’re throwing the word dynasty around,” Cooper said. “That’s a huge wave of emotions in a seven-year, six-year span, to go through. But this core went through it together.”

In response to being humbled by the Blue Jackets, the Lightning eliminated some of the risk in their game, stressing defensive responsibilities. They added rugged but skilled bottom-six forwards like Goodrow and Coleman, who supplied the defining moment of this series, in Game 2, with a diving goal in the closing seconds of the second period. Those players meshed with stalwarts like Alex Killorn, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, who is among the many players unlikely to return next season, a victim of circumstance.

The Lightning circumvented the league’s salary-cap system by adding Kucherov for the playoffs, but they won’t be able to retain everyone — especially not with the Seattle Kraken expansion draft looming — a situation that Cooper said had conferred upon this run a certain “last day of school” feeling.

Stamkos, the team’s captain, said it was impossible to overstate how much of a motivating force the team’s pending breakup was as they chased another championship.

“It’s not very often you get this chance to play with a talented team like we did, and we just believed,” said Stamkos, who missed most of the 2020 playoffs with an injury. “It’s so hard to win the Stanley Cup and then you do it two years in a row. I mean, we deserve to go down in history.”

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