• The Star Staff

Tampa Bay Lightning win Stanley Cup in pandemic bubble

By Carol Schram

The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars, 2-0, on Monday, more than two months after they entered the NHL bubble in Toronto, to leave Edmonton as the winners of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

Brayden Point scored on a first-period power play and Andrei Vasilevskiy made 22 saves for his first shutout of the postseason as Tampa Bay won the best-of-seven series, four games to two. Blake Coleman also scored for the Lightning in the second period.

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs. He led all defensemen this postseason with 10 goals.

Anton Khudobin made 27 saves for the Stars, who had fallen behind three games to one and forced a sixth game with a double-overtime win in Game 5 but could not push the series to a Game 7.

“We knew what we were capable of, with our whole roster, and we were just pretty thankful to get the opportunity to come back and play,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “Right from Day 1 there, we were focused and dialed in, and now we can say mission accomplished, which is a pretty incredible feeling.”

Point’s tally came on the second Tampa Bay power play of the game. He streaked down the slot, then picked up his own rebound and beat Khudobin high for his playoff-leading 14th goal of the postseason. His linemate Nikita Kucherov drew the primary assist, his playoff-leading 34th point and 27th assist, fifth highest in NHL history behind only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

Vasilevskiy played every minute in net for the Lightning and set a postseason record for minutes played. The old record was held by the Calgary Flames’ Miikka Kiprusoff, who was on the losing side in 2004 when the Lightning won their franchise’s only previous championship.

After Lightning captain Steven Stamkos made a brief but thrilling appearance for 2 minutes, 47 seconds in Game 3 and scored a goal on his only shot, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper officially ruled him out for the rest of the playoffs Sunday. He put on his uniform to receive the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman after the game.

“I think we put our gear on with like three or four minutes left. We didn’t want to jinx anything,” Stamkos said. “But just to be out there and celebrate with the guys. It’s something we talked about at the beginning of training camp, that it’s not just going to take 20 guys to win the Stanley Cup, it’s going to take every single guy who was in this bubble, and more. And I’m so proud of each and every one of them.”

Cooper made two lineup changes for Game 6 — reinserting defenseman Zach Bogosian in place of Jan Rutta for the first time since Game 1 and swapping out forward Carter Verhaeghe in favor of rookie Alexander Volkov, who saw his first career playoff action.

Following back-to-back games in which the Lightning won in overtime Friday and the Stars answered back in double overtime Saturday, the intensity took a bit of a dip Monday as the clubs settled in for another tight-checking first period.

As was often the case in this series, special teams were the difference. The Lightning were 1 for 3 with the man advantage, while the Stars were 0 for 3. Dallas’ final power play came with 4:33 left in the third period.

The Stars were unable to generate a single shot on goal but kept pressing after pulling Khudobin for the extra attacker. After generating just eight shots in the first two periods, Dallas outshot Tampa Bay, 14-8, in the third, but Vasilevskiy stopped them all.

“We worked the whole season,” Khudobin said. “We were down one goal, two goals, three goals. We never doubt ourselves that we can’t win. We just kept going. Unfortunately it is what it is right now. The character in this room is unbelievable.”

As time ran out, the screams of joy echoed through Rogers Place, which was devoid of ticket-buying fans, as the Lightning players poured onto the ice to celebrate a Stanley Cup win that had been a long time coming.

Point’s first-period goal proved to be the game winner, and Coleman’s insurance tally came off a pretty tic-tac-toe passing play at 7:01 of the second period. Assists on that goal went to Cedric Paquette and Pat Maroon, who stole the puck to start the play.

A new addition to the Lightning this season, Maroon came into the playoffs as the only Tampa Bay player with a Stanley Cup ring. On Monday, he lifted the trophy for the second consecutive year after winning with his hometown St. Louis Blues in 2019.

“The boys, you know, obviously with COVID, they came together as a group. We had a plan,” Maroon said. “They sacrificed, being away from their families and kids, and I think it’s probably one of the hardest trophies to win. Obviously, we didn’t have family there, it was a little different this year, but it’s nice to celebrate with these boys.”

For the Lightning and many of their players, this Stanley Cup carries an air of vindication. One year ago, they finished the regular season as the NHL’s top team and tied a league record with 62 wins. But their championship aspirations were snuffed in a first-round sweep at the hands of the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets.

This season, the Lightning came back mentally tougher, in part thanks to the addition of some other veterans who felt they had something to prove. One of them, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, scored the overtime winner in Game 4 to put the Lightning one win away from the Stanley Cup — just one year after he was bought out of the last two years of his contract with the New York Rangers.

In an era of parity in the NHL, where dynastic franchises largely belong to a bygone era, Tampa Bay has been one of the most successful teams in the league since Cooper took over behind their bench near the end of the 2012-13 season.

For five of those years, from 2013 to 2018, Cooper was assisted by Rick Bowness, the veteran defensive coach who left for Dallas at the beginning of the 2018-19 season. He was named the Stars’ interim head coach midway through this season, after Jim Montgomery was dismissed.

Bowness had also been to the finals in 2011 with Vancouver and with the 2015 Tampa team.

“Three kicks at it — last nine years — it’s disappointing,” he said. “Sitting here as a coach, you have to roll with the punches. We don’t second-guess anyone’s effort or commitment. We came up short against a team. We lost to a better team.”

Cooper is currently the longest-tenured coach in the league. Under his leadership, the club has now made the playoffs in six of his seven full seasons, reaching the Eastern Conference finals twice and losing to Chicago in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final before finally finishing the job this year — a Sun Belt team realizing its championship dreams in an empty arena in Alberta, Canada.

“It’s easy to talk about now,” Cooper said. “The bottom line is, there are some gifted people I guess, that success finds them instantly. But in a team sport, I truly believe that failure — you have to feel it before you can have success.

“You wear the bumps, you wear the bruises, you wear the heartache,” he continued. “You wear the feelings, you wear it on your sleeve and it keeps you up at night, but it also drives you. And it almost becomes — the fear of losing becomes greater than the joy of winning, and we were not going to be denied.

“Our players weren’t going to be denied. We got to get up here and talk about and own what happened last year, but the players took it on the chin, and I can’t be happier for those guys because they deserve it.”

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