TAMPA — When the final horn of a unique, unpredictable season blared Wednesday night at Amalie Arena, tired legs hopped over the railing of the Lightning bench and Tampa Bay skated into hockey history.
The Lightning’s 1-0 win over the Canadiens in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final sealed a 4-1 series win and made Tampa Bay just the second team since the salary cap era began in 2005-06 to win back-to-back Stanley Cups, joining the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Legacies like this are rare in today’s game. The cap keeps teams from being great year after year, but this Lightning team managed to stay together and achieved the improbable.
“No matter what happens from here on out, this group is going to be etched in history forever,” captain Steven Stamkos said.
The Lightning rebounded from a Game 4 loss in Montreal, making them the first team to win the Cup on home ice since 2015, when they had to watch the Blackhawks claim the championship in Chicago.
“We’ve been knocking at the door for so many years,” coach Jon Cooper said. “And now to be able to do it, back to back, and it kind of cements this group as … well, they’re special.”
After celebrating last year’s championship in an empty arena in Edmonton after 65 days in a playoff bubble, the Lightning brought Lord Stanley home in front of an announced capacity crowd of 18,110.
“Quite the turnaround from being really disappointed and not winning Game 4 to seizing the moment,” Stamkos said. “I think that what kind of motivated this group this year was, obviously we won the Stanley Cup last year, but we didn’t get to do it in front of our family, our friends and our fans, and we had the opportunity (Wednesday) and … the crowd was amazing.”
A celebration a year in the making took place, with streamers and confetti falling from Amalie’s rafters as the players mobbed goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who ended the season with his record fifth straight series-clinching shutout in the playoffs. Vasilevskiy, who made 22 saves in the victory, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s most valuable player, a rarity for a goaltender.
“(Vasilevskiy) was on his head (Wednesday), and he kept us in the game and another shutout by him,” forward Nikita Kucherov said. “Remarkable. I’m so happy; we didn’t want to go back to Montreal. The fans in Montreal, come on, they acted like they won the Stanley Cup last game. Are you kidding me?”
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The Lightning’s legacy will be one of redemption and resilience. Their season started with them playing in arenas so desolate they could hear their skate blades on ice. They endured strict coronavirus protocols, were isolated in their hotels on the road and played every game with a huge bull’s-eye on their backs.
A team built on skill reinvented itself with grit. When it bought in on being a better defensive team, it became championship caliber. And in the playoffs, games are decided by how many goals a team prevents, not how many it can score.
“People wanted to sacrifice, whatever it took, to be back-to-back Stanley Cup winners and just the confidence we had going into the playoffs,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “We had a tough time at the end of the regular season, and people are asking if we were really in it or not, but once the playoffs started, we kind of pushed the button.”
The two players in the lineup who weren’t part of last year’s team — rookie forward Ross Colton and defenseman David Savard, acquired at the trade deadline — connected for the game’s only goal with 6:33 left in the second period.
Colton, who began the year with AHL Syracuse, had moved up to the second line after Alex Killorn broke his left fibula in Game 1. Killorn had surgery to insert a rod in the leg last week and missed the last four games of the final.
Colton’s charge to the net will now live in Tampa Bay sports history.
The Lightning won a puck battle against the near boards, and the puck landed with Savard along the far side. Once the Lightning won possession, Colton won a joust with Canadiens defenseman Joel Edmundson for positioning in front of the net, and he redirected Savard’s pass through traffic into the back of the net.
Kucherov and Stamkos said they couldn’t sleep for several nights during the final. Vasilevskiy said before Game 5 he thought of his feeling watching Chicago win the Cup on home ice over the Lightning in 2015.
“I was crying basically on the bench with 1:40 left, and I couldn’t even throw my stuff off,” said forward Pat Maroon, who won his third straight Cup. “But it takes a group of 25 men, and we did that, and I’m very proud of these guys.”
Once the celebration started and the players took their victory laps lifting the Cup, starting with Stamkos, then Hedman, and going down the roster, the emotions sank in in front of the same arena that was empty when they played their first game of the season Jan. 13.
When Cooper had his turn some 20 minutes into the celebration, he lifted the Cup high in the air and looked into the crowd with still nearly every seat filled and mouthed three words to it:
“I love you.”
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