TAMPA — This is how you will always remember them.
Dancing on the ice, joyous and triumphant. Engaging the crowd, rapturous and noisy. Holding one of the most precious trophies in sports above their heads, ferocious and proud.
Yes, the Lightning have done it again.
They have put their names in the history books, and they have showered Tampa Bay in glory. The Lightning won a second straight Stanley Cup Wednesday night with a 1-0 victory in Game 5 against the Canadiens, and a community’s winning streak continues unabated.
Rewind the video and replay the moment. Look at the sweat, the bruises, the blood, the euphoria.
Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos, teammates for a dozen years, wrapped their arms around each other while streamers dropped from the rafters, and when they finally let go, Hedman gently kissed his friend on the forehead. Ryan McDonagh seemed to cry harder with each teammate he embraced. Coach Jon Cooper lifted the Stanley Cup above his head and mouthed, “I love you,” as he looked out at the crowd.
“It was motivation with the group that we have, knowing that this is, realistically, probably the last time all of us will play together,” Stamkos said. “And then the motivation to do it in front of our fans, in front of our families and friends, was amazing.”
Pat Maroon, who became the first player in nearly 40 years to win the Cup in three consecutive seasons, took a trip around the glass, filming fans in the front rows with his smartphone. Nikita Kucherov danced while his teammates carried the Cup around the ice and then, upon seeing himself on the video scoreboard, cupped his hand to his ear as the crowd roared “Kuuuch!”
“I can’t put it into words right now. I was crying, basically, on the bench with 1:40 left,” Maroon said. “To be a Stanley Cup champ three years in a row is pretty special. It takes a group, it takes a group of 25 men, and we did it and I’m very proud of these guys.”
In that moment as the music played and the emotions swirled, it was as if nothing else mattered. Not past heartbreaks, nor impending departures. Not awards, not contracts, not last year’s postseason in the bubble. Just the game they loved, and the journey they have taken.
Once upon a time, we thought they were a team for the ages. A team that seemingly scored on command and collected regular-season victories like pennies in a piggy bank. But it turns out, they were more than that.
They were a team for our hearts.
A group of stars that reinvented themselves as a team of overachievers. A handful of tough forwards, and a collection of sturdy defensemen. Battlers, grinders, hard cases. Lovable characters playing alongside the MVP, Vezina and Norris Trophy winners. A team that could win consecutive series clinchers by a 1-0 score.
“Just a special, special, special group,” Cooper said. “And, who knows, I guess we’ll see if we can threepeat.”
The memory of a Lightning team that won 62 games in a historic regular season and then collapsed in the first round of the playoffs in 2019 no longer feels bitter or forlorn. Now, it’s just part of a greater story of resilience and growth.
“We’ve been through a lot together. I think back to 2015 when we went to the finals (and) Columbus when we got swept (in 2019),” said Alex Killorn. “At that point a lot of people were writing us off and didn’t think we had what it took to win. This group in the salary-cap era, to go back-to back, I think we’ll go down as one of the better teams to ever do it.”
In a bizarre way, the experience made the past two years even more enjoyable. Or, at least, made us all appreciate just how difficult it is to survive four rounds of the postseason, no matter how many records you challenge.
That 2019 group may have been a team to admire, but this is a team to embrace.
For sure, there were big moments along the way. Late goals early in the postseason, and Andrei Vasilevskiy standing tall in the net in the final two rounds. And the idea that two of the only newcomers — Ross Colton with the goal and David Savard on the assist — teamed up for the first goal in Game 5 is even a nice separator between the two Cups.
Because, for the most part, this run wasn’t as dramatic as 2020. No overtime winners and less of a desperation feel. Instead, the best memories of this team will be more introspective. It will be the kinship and camaraderie of a group of players that you have grown attached to.
And so now we are dancing in Ybor City, and raising our mugs on Beach Drive. We’re buying championship swag in Clearwater, and bragging to neighbors in Brandon. Sports fans in Tampa Bay are on an 11-month bender unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
A Stanley Cup that was followed by a World Series appearance that was chased by a Super Bowl title and was then topped off with another Stanley Cup on Wednesday night.
New York? Boston? Philadelphia?
Today, they are lightweights.
Four decades of ridicule in Tampa Bay stadiums and arenas has been obscured by the shine of all that bling in 2020 and ’21. And no trophy has spent more time here than the Stanley Cup. No big-time team has ever gone back-to-back in Tampa Bay like the Lightning have done.
This is their moment, but it is also their era.
Since Jeff Vinik’s first full season as owner in 2010-11, the Lightning are third in the NHL in regular-season victories and are now one of four teams to have won two Stanley Cups in that time.
We’ve watched these players grow, and that’s not a mere platitude. Stamkos was 18 when he first skated in a Lightning uniform. Hedman was, too. Both are over 30 now. Tyler Johnson, Killorn, Kucherov and Ondrej Palat were all in their early 20s when they arrived.
We’ve seen them start families, and put down roots. We’ve seen them return from injuries, slumps and holdouts.
We’ve seen them fall two games short of the Stanley Cup, and we’ve seen them fail to make the playoffs at all. We’ve seen them skate for Barry Melrose, Rick Tocchet and Guy Boucher before Cooper arrived to cash his first NHL paycheck.
We’ve seen a team rise and a city blossom. We’ve seen a story unfold little by little, player by player, memory by memory over the course of a decade.
Bless you, boys. We’ll not forget you.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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