The Lightning’s quest for the Stanley Cup seemed interminable and, at times, this season has felt endless. Perhaps it is fitting that 2020 will now live forever in Tampa Bay.
Yes, the wait is finally over. For a group of players who have been stalking the Cup since 2015, and for a community of fans accustomed to late-season heartbreak. The Lightning have been the winningest franchise in the NHL for the past half-dozen seasons, and now they have the trophy that finally validates their blood, sweat and careers.
Tampa Bay beat Dallas 2-0 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final on Monday night, ending a chase that has alternated from exhilarating to exasperating and back again.
“You wear the bumps, you wear the bruises, you wear the heartache, you wear the feelings, you wear it on your sleeve and it keeps you up at night. But it also drives you,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “The fear of losing almost becomes greater than the joy of winning. And we were not going to be denied.”
When it was over, and the grail was won, Lightning players shed their sticks, gloves and demons simultaneously on the ice. They arrived together in front of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s net, and embraced in a whirling, leaping hug.
And later, after commissioner Gary Bettman’s presentation in front of bursts of fire on ice, they took turns, one by one, to skate slow circles with the Stanley Cup held aloft.
“I never in my dreams thought that I would win the Stanley Cup," said defenseman Victor Hedman, who also won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. "It’s a dream. It’s so unrealistic. It’s what you dream of when you play on the streets back home when you’re growing up.”
And so the pandemic-delayed season that took 12 months to complete was finally conquered by the team that took an eternity to grow up.
Yes, it is now permissible to remember them that way. It was never a question of talent or desire with these guys, it just took them a while to realize the fancy skills that made them the darlings of the regular season were not enough to turn them into playoff legends.
Two Game 7 losses in the Eastern Conference final in 2016 and 2018, a Game 6 departure in the Stanley Cup final in 2015 and, most demoralizing, a first-round disappearing act after winning the President’s Trophy in 2019.
Turns out, those were just obligatory tearjerkers in hockey’s ultimate tale of redemption.
So call the engravers. Tell them to start carving immediately, because Lord Stanley’s Cup has a long journey ahead from the bubble in Edmonton. They need a prominent spot on the Cup for Point’s name, and one for Hedman, too. Ondrej Palat will certainly be near the top of the ring, and Nikita Kucherov is clearly deserving, too.
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“So many guys would do anything in the world for a chance to win the Stanley Cup,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “There’s so many great players who have played this game and haven’t had a chance to experience what we just experienced.”
Mourn, if you want, the circumstances. It stinks that after all the near-misses and disappointments, the Lightning finally won in an empty arena thousands of miles from home. The players deserved better, and so did their fans. They deserved to stand in the same building, to raise their voices to the rafters and to bask in a glory both rare and unifying.
But those are complaints for another day. For now, the Lightning rule the NHL for the first time since 2004, and that is enough for fans who have learned that expectation can be the dirtiest word of all.
So this one is for you, Tampa Bay.
Embrace it, cherish it, and never forget it.
Never forget Brayden Point streaking past a defender in Game 4, and befuddling a goaltender as he moved the puck back and forth in a blur. Never forget Hedman smashing his stick in a hallway after twisting his ankle on the eve of the playoffs, and then coming back to have a postseason unlike any defensemen in the past 25 years. Never forget Stamkos showing the world what brilliance and perseverance looks like in 2:47 of sublime hockey.
This one is for the doubters, too.
And count me among them. Those who wondered if Lightning teams of the past were selfless enough to make it this far. Who wondered if the postseason shortcomings had more to do with a character flaw than roster and strategy issues.
Four times in the past six years, they looked like they were good enough to win this Cup. And four times, they fell short. Yet, during this postseason, the Lightning set a standard for clutch performances that others will be measured against. From the start of the first round, Tampa Bay was a remarkable 6-2 in overtime, and 10-3 in one-goal games. They played more overtime minutes than any playoff team in NHL history.
So remember how the Lightning chose leaders instead of stars after the Columbus debacle. Remember how Kevin Shattenkirk and Pat Maroon brought professionalism to the locker room and how Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Zach Bogosian brought grit to the lineup.
And, yes, this one is for owner Jeff Vinik. For the coach, as well. This one is for Lightning founder Phil Esposito, and for recently retired broadcaster Rick Peckham.
In the end?
Well, this one is for the ages.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.