EDMONTON — Whoever would have believed, back on March 11 when Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz set off a set of coronavirus dominoes that would stop the world of sport cold in its tracks, that we would end up where we are today.
A playoff season with integrity, a Stanley Cup awarded and a Tampa Bay Lightning team finally enjoying its well-earned turn with Big Stanley. And now…?
Well, who knows what may come next for the National Hockey League? That can wait.
For a moment, let’s acknowledge the successful execution of what seemed like some misty dream when the sports world hit pause back in March: That they could hold a playoffs with legitimacy, and award a Stanley Cup worth winning.
Inside two bubbles. Without a single positive test for COVID-19 in two months.
“All the tough times going through there, living in the bubble… fortunately we kept winning and that helped,” said Dallas head coach Rick Bowness after his team’s 2-0, series-ending loss in Game 6. “This was a very difficult situation to live in, for nine-plus weeks. It is Groundhog Day, but… when you’re competing for the Stanley Cup, it doesn’t matter the rink, it doesn’t matter the conditions. You’re still competing for the Stanley Cup. It’s been well worth it.”
They played punishing, laser-fast hockey on the final night of the tournament, peppered with relentless shot blocking and unforgiving physicality. That these two teams had this much left after two months of every-second-night hockey is testimony to the Stanley Cup being the hardest in sports to win, and to the men who compete for it.
In the end, Tampa was better AND healthier than Dallas, who finished its run missing an entire third line of Radek Faksa, Roope Hintz and Blake Comeau. Not to mention No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop, who played in only two playoff games. The toll of playing without the puck as much as the Stars do simply exacted a larger bill than Dallas could pay, as they issued just 22 shots at Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy in Game 6.
“Our players gave us everything they could,” said Bowness. “Was there enough in the tank tonight? No, there wasn’t. It’s a credit to our players that we got to Game 6. I am very proud to be their coach.”
Said goalie Anton Khudobin, who watched Tampa defenceman Victor Hedman raise the Conn Smythe Trophy that would have been his had Dallas been on the other end of this result: “There are no feelings right now. Just empty."
The little back-up from Kazakhstan took the reins and carried Dallas to within two wins of the finish line. From Kazakhstan to Kazak-Stanley, and then the brutal thud back to earth as the Lightning were the ones left celebrating.
“We stick together, we stick to the team, we stick to each other,” Khudobin said. “But right now? There is nothing.”
The bubble, it turned out was a predictably unpredictable place.
There were teams that never found their way, like past champions Washington and St. Louis. Having won the last two Stanley Cups under traditional circumstances, neither club cottoned to this quarantine as both went out in Round 1.
The Toronto Maple Leafs disappointed no more or less than the Edmonton Oilers, two teams from which more was expected that each fell flat in the Qualifying Round. Quite the opposite of Dallas, Toronto is that team that just cannot find a way, losing this season in five games to Columbus.
When it was over, Sheldon Keefe’s pleas for better luck fell on deaf ears among Leafs Nation.
“More luck and it might have been a different result,” lamented the Leafs head coach. “Did we end up shooting at about two per cent at 5-on-5? For a team like ours to score on two per cent of its chances, I think everybody coming into the series would say it’s pretty unlikely.”
Edmonton, meanwhile, flat-out choked against the 12th place Chicago Blackhawks, leaving the city around the Western bubble apathetic to what was occurring in its own downtown core.
“We all thought we had more to give,” admitted defenceman Darnell Nurse. “We didn’t bring what was necessary to win.”
Alas, Canadian fans found pleasant surprises in a stunning Montreal upset of Pittsburgh, and with a Vancouver Canucks team that matured before our eyes. Of all the teams that somehow improved during the pause, after the Dallas Stars, Vancouver was the next best.
“You’ve got to go through… and learn. You’ve got to fall, got to get up,” head coach Travis Green said of his young Canucks, a roster that had 10 players playing their first ever post-season game. “I don’t think many people thought we’d be a goal away from going to the semifinals. What our team has gone through, the mental part, physical part, it will help our group.
“It will help our group next year. It will help us in five years.”
Watching the homeless people making their way in downtown through a chain link fence, the Vegas Golden Knights had a stack of pizzas delivered to a local support centre called the Boyle Street Community Services Co-op. Then they did it again the next week and the week after that. Then, after the Golden Knights had left the bubble, a group of Vegas fans spearheaded a fund raiser that will see food being delivered to people in need long after all the teams have gone home.
What else didn’t we know about the Golden Knights? The empty Rogers Place allowed us to learn that, of all the teams that played a game here, none were yappier from the bench or more antagonistic towards the officials.
Charitable to those in need, yet relentless on opponents and officials. Vegas’ dedication to the spoken word mirrored the work done by so many folks who made the bubbles work in both Toronto and Edmonton.
“You don’t get these done without the people in both cities bending over backwards for you. Every detail has been looked after,” said Tampa head coach Jon Cooper. “It’s remarkable, actually, that this has gone on.
“Give the players credit for the quality of play and how intense the game is. But to watch those games on TV, it’s incredible what they’ve done. I can’t say enough about how this has gone on.
“It’s impressive how it’s been pulled off.”
The 2019-20 season is complete. Over and out from Edmonton.
That’s a bubble wrap.