The Tampa Bay Lightning accomplished an incredible feat winning back-to-back Stanley Cups with their Game 5 win over Montreal Wednesday night.
Before we head into what should be a busy off-season, here are some takeaways to put a bow on the Cup Final.
1. Tampa Bay deserved to win that in front of their fans and impartial viewers did, too
What Tampa Bay did last year winning the Stanley Cup in the extremely bizarre fan-less bubble, then coming back and doing it again, I just can’t say enough about the ability and mental strength of that team.
We all made fun of the Tampa Bay mayor for wanting the Lightning to get this done at home, but now that it’s actually over, we can admit it sure felt fitting, didn’t it?
Let’s face something here hockey fans: it wasn’t always easy to root for hockey games without fans in the stands, and for that you deserve a pat on the back too. You deserved fans being there for the dying minutes, and the Cup ceremony, and all that came with it. I know Montreal fans are hurting after that one, and so I’ll excuse you for hating the sentiment, but for the rest of us without a dog in the fight, man it was cool to see the Cup handed out in front of screaming people once again.
2. The Habs prove you aren’t promised good luck, but being built a certain way allows you to take advantage of it when it comes
As far back as you care to look in hockey’s past, “the hockey gods” are referenced (and feared) for their undeniable influence on individual games. Maybe you’re more the pagan type and inclined to call it “puck luck.” Whatever. The point is hockey is more prone to the effects of randomness than any of the other four major sports, and that’s just a reality of the game we’ve all chosen to love.
To balance that, we play best-of-seven series, which generally gives us a large enough sample size to at least even out the effects of single game luck over 4-7 contests.
Still, luck alone is not enough to propel a single team, in this case the Montreal Canadiens, through to the Stanley Cup Final. Not even close. Tons of teams have gotten breaks and been unable to cash in on them.
What’s made the Habs so special is that they’re built in a way that allows them to take advantage of good breaks when they come. And I’m not talking purely about opportunistic scoring here, though they’ve had a good dose of that too.
The Leafs lost John Tavares minutes into Game 1 of a series that went seven games, the Jets lost Mark Scheifele after their first game of the series, and the Golden Knights' top centre, Chandler Stephenson, was either absent or struggling in their six-gamer versus Vegas.
What allowed Montreal to cash in on those breaks is that they were always built to not give their opponent anything easy. They always played well as a team, had some physicality, and were a group not prone to The Big Error, which often comes with more one-dimensional players. Tampa had to keep them off the board entirely to get it done in the end.
Other teams in hockey always want to copycat whoever wins the Cup and even those who make the final, and I think the Habs offer a lesson. If you don’t have pure offensive stars, if you don’t have a roster littered with players in the league’s top-10, top-20 or even top-50, and you want to win now, the idea should be that having a veteran team with two-way players (and goaltending) gives you the best shot at upsets.
3. There’s comfort in Tampa Bay winning, and the best team in the league being rewarded
I mentioned hockey can be prone to randomness, which is why I find repeat champions extremely validating for the sport. Some of my fringe hockey friends often make comments about its unpredictability, and how it undermines the value of the regular season. When there are big upsets -- and there are no shortage of eight seed versus one seed upsets in hockey -- it almost makes the whole thing just look like a crapshoot.
If you can construct a team as solid as Tampa Bay all the way through and not win, then I’m not exactly sure what it is I’m out here doing as an analyst either. That was one of the deepest teams of the past 20-plus years and so I find it validating that you can build teams good enough to overcome that randomness again and again.
The Penguins won repeat Cups, the Blackhawks did over a span of years, the Kings did over a span of years, if you’re good enough and get yourself in the fight enough times, you can out-perform hockey’s weirdness. Thank the heavens for that. Shoutout to Tampa Bay for clearly being hockey's best team this season, and last season, and quite possibly next.
4. How are the Canadiens positioned going forward?
So what now for Montreal? They fall short at the end of it all, winning a game in the Stanley Cup Final, which is a wildly successful season any way you slice it. Will that confidence and experience translate to greater things ahead?
I will say, that’s one thing I have … not heard, at least outside Montreal. I have not heard anyone saying they expect the Canadiens back here next year. Not that there’s any reason to think they’ll be worse, but this is a team that finished 18th in points during this past regular season, and now re-enters an Atlantic Division with this Tampa Bay Lightning team, as well as the Boston Bruins, the Florida Panthers, and the Toronto Maple Leafs. There may be some easier nights with Ottawa/Detroit/Buffalo, but it sure seems like Montreal is unlikely to finish atop that division, let alone in its top three.
Can they outperform what may be a Boston team in decline? Could the Leafs take a step back after losing some bigger names? Could the division send five teams to the playoffs? Sure, all those things are absolutely possible, which would put Montreal back in the playoffs and allow them another crack at doing what they’ve done here this season. It could happen, I’m not gonna claim it couldn’t.
But the road ahead is tough, and it’s quite likely this amazing run was a feather in the cap of all those involved, their fans included, and that the team may not be poised to do something similar for another few years yet.
5. The Lightning’s depth in the end
I was on Team Kucherov for the Conn Smythe a few games back, basically on the heels of taking the Bolts' regular season power play and adding about 10 per cent to it in the post-season. But the PP dried up in the end, he went a little cold, and the series ended in a shutout. So, I think my vote would’ve gone to Andrei Vasilevskiy in the end as well.
But more than those two names -- and Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman -- you have to look at the Bolts' roster fringes to appreciate how they got this thing over the hump. There are plenty of teams with stars, but the last six goals Tampa scored in the Cup Final were tallied by Ross Colton, Pat Maroon (from Mathieu Joseph), Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman, and Tyler Johnson (twice).
When things get tight you need everyone, and they had answers all the way through their lineup. They were deserving champions.
Here’s to you, the hockey fan, and our readers, for being so awesome through another challenging hockey season. Here’s to hoping next season looks a little more like things did in the before times.