At last, the narrative is complete. The Lightning are Stanley Cup champions.
No qualifier necessary.
This season was unlike any other: the journey was longer, the climb steeper, the terrain more treacherous than at any time before. Nearly a year after opening the 2019-20 season against the Panthers on Oct. 3, the Lightning beat the Stars 2-0 Monday in Game 6 to clinch the Cup.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, appropriately, called it “the hardest Stanley Cup run of all time.”
History will record the Lightning’s season as a redemptive tale. And, assuredly, it is.
Only in retrospect can we appreciate that last season’s first-round ouster at the hands of the lowest-seeded Blue Jackets was just the first half of a two-act play.
But to the players and coaches, it is also a story of fulfillment — one five years in the making.
Of teammates pulling together under the most difficult of circumstances. Of a season paused. Of goodbyes to loved ones and isolation inside a bubble. Of games without fans. Of months without their captain in the lineup before a brief, but spectacular, return. And finally, of sheer domination over a field of problematic matchups, culminating with the lifting of the trophy that escaped them in 2015.
The Lightning won 16 of 22 playoff games (not counting round-robin games), the kind of run we might have expected from last season’s historic 62-win team.
It didn’t happen then.
This is a better story.
Here is how we graded the Lightning’s performance in Game 6:
It takes a team to raise a Cup
It all mattered.
Re-signing Brayden Point, but also Cedric Paquette. Acquiring Patrick Maroon, Kevin Shattenkirk, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Zach Bogosian. Adding Braydon Coburn, Luke Schenn, Carter Verhaeghe and Mitchell Stephens to the lineup early in the postseason, and Jan Rutta and Alex Volkov in the Cup final. The 2:47 played by captain Steven Stamkos.
The creativity of Nikita Kucherov. The speed of Point. The booming shot of Victor Hedman. The athletic saves by Andrei Vasilevskiy, but the routine ones, too. The tenacity of Yanni Gourde. The headiness of Ondrej Palat. The net-front presence of Alex Killorn. The forechecking of Anthony Cirelli. The toughness of Tyler Johnson.
The shut-down defense from Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak. The emergence of Mikhail Sergachev. The two-way commitment up and down the lineup. The unselfishness of Mathieu Joseph and Curtis McElhinney.
Take away any of these things, and the Lightning might not be hoisting the Stanley Cup. Put them all together, and you have a team for the ages. A whole greater than the sum of its spectacular parts. This team didn’t sweep its way to a title, but it came close.
Point put the Lightning on the board with 7:37 left in the first period of Game 6 when he scored on his own rebound. Little did we know it would be the only goal Tampa Bay would need in the game. With the Lightning on the power play, Point took a Kucherov backhand pass from the side boards and skated to the left circle. His initial shot hit Dallas goaltender Anton Khudobin in the chest. Three Stars penalty killers were in the area, but none picked up Point, who spotted the puck in the low slot and flipped it into an empty net. Point, Brayden — his 33rd of the postseason and 14th goal, most among playoff skaters.
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One-timer twice as nice
Coleman doubled the Lightning lead with a one-timer from the right circle on a 3-on-2 just over seven minutes into the second period. Maroon picked off an Alexander Radulov pass from the defensive zone intended for John Klingberg at center ice and dished to Paquette, who set up Coleman with a cross-ice pass. Great work by Coleman skating to open ice to create space for himself and an even better job putting the puck in the net. But the play was made possible by Maroon, who took advantage of the confusion created by a Lightning line change to create the turnover.
Backstopping from his back
Vasilevskiy was knocked on his back when Stars forward Corey Perry backed into him midway through the second period during a Dallas power play. A shot from the point hit Perry, who slid a pass to Joel Kiviranta coming down the slot. Vasilevskiy somehow managed to kick Kiviranta’s shot up over the net while laying on his back. It wouldn’t have counted, since Perry was penalized for goaltender interference. But imagine the psychological effect the save must have had on a Stars team that couldn’t solve Vasilevskiy all night, as he stopped all 22 shots he faced.
One final obstacle
Admit it. Your heart was in your throat when McDonagh was penalized for tripping Kiviranta with 4:33 remaining, giving the Stars a power play. But like it had all postseason, the Lightning penalty kill rose to the occasion. Vasilevskiy made a save on a quick Seguin shot from the lower left circle. Cirelli picked off a pass from Radulov to Seguin and skated into the Dallas zone, unleashing a shot from the left circle. Coleman had another shorthanded scoring opportunity. After that, all that was left was to count down the clock.
The right pick
Hedman, whose 10 goals this postseason were third-most by a defenseman in NHL history, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. The Lightning had several good candidates, including Point, Kucherov and Vasilevskiy. But Hedman was the right choice. His pinpoint passing, ability to skate with the puck in all three zones and thunderous slap shot were game-changers. Dallas never had an answer for the 6-foot-6 defenseman, who finished with 22 playoff points and averaged more than 26 minutes of ice time per game.
Passing the Cup
Breaking from convention, the Lightning asked to gather around the Stanley Cup as a team before the trophy was presented to Stamkos as captain. It was a great moment, and one that only got better as Stamkos received the trophy from Bettman, then passed it to longtime buddy Hedman, the second-longest-tenured player on the team. Hedman handed it to Coburn, a 15-year veteran who had been scratched for the final two rounds but played three big games against Boston in the conference semifinals. From there, it went to McDonagh, Killorn, Schenn, Bogosian (a playoff participant for the first time in his 12-year career), Maroon (who lifted the Cup for the second straight season), Kucherov, Vasilevskiy, Palat and so on. There has never been a more beautiful sight on ice.
On a personal note
I lost my mother to cancer this summer. My father has had problems that go well beyond grief. I have struggled with my own personal demons, anger and anxiety chief among them. So many of us in recent months have lost loved ones, jobs, businesses, the connections that make us the social creatures we are.
Watching the Lightning’s Stanley Cup run gave me an occasional reprieve from those troubles. Chronicling it has given me purpose. Seeing teammates support each other no matter the circumstance has taught me to lean on my own family during these times.
Journalists are taught to be objective. To hold our teams accountable to what we believe to be realistic expectations. To root only for a good story. But that doesn’t mean we can’t marvel at players' abilities or draw inspiration from their accomplishments.
So while I might not be able to cheer alongside you, I can certainly appreciate what the Lightning’s playoff run might mean to you. To us. I am a member of this community, after all.
And I know a good story when I see one.
This is a great one.
No grade necessary. Thank you is enough.