Forged by disappointment, Lightning ride out every storm to win Stanley Cup

Andrei Vasilevskiy didn’t allow a goal as the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Montreal Canadiens 1-0 in Game 5 win the Stanley Cup.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Go figure that a team known as the Lightning would become the NHL’s best at riding out a storm.

Whether it was Hurricane Elsa, a do-or-die Game 7 or a magical run by the Montreal Canadiens, nothing could knock the Tampa Bay Lightning off course in their pursuit of a second-straight Stanley Cup.

They went from kings of the Edmonton bubble to back-to-back champions in just 282 days, by far the shortest span between Stanley Cup victories by one NHL organization.

No one handled the unique pandemic challenges better. No one reacted more favourably to unpredictable circumstances. The Lightning blistered through eight playoff rounds with a 32-13 record -- not so much as losing consecutive games in the process.

“It's so hard to win the Stanley Cup. And then you do it two years in a row, you deserve to go down in history,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “And this group, no matter what happens from here on out, this group is going to be etched in history forever and that's pretty effing special.

“I’m so proud of the guys.”

Tampa overwhelmed the Canadiens in the Final, completely smothering them Wednesday while clinching their fifth-straight playoff series with a shutout: 1-0.

That was enough for Andrei Vasilevskiy to secure the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP following a run where he finished with a league-best .937 save percentage and five shutouts.

“If he played in a different market, he would win the Vezina every year,” said Nikita Kucherov.

The winning goal came courtesy of two players who didn’t lift the Cup in September, with trade deadline pickup David Savard firing a perfect pass to rookie Ross Colton at the edge of Carey Price’s crease.

Just like in the 1-0 win over the New York Islanders in Game 7 last round, that was all they needed.

“The biggest thing we didn’t talk about publicly, is the team knows we’re probably not going to be back together next year,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “That was the conversation: ‘Don’t let this end, it's too special of a group.’

“They weren’t going to go out without raising a trophy.”

This was night-and-day from the scene at Rogers Place on Sept. 28. Gary Bettman looked around the packed stands at Amalie Arena and said it was a sign things had returned to normal before Stamkos and his teammates came to accept the Cup.

Then every player took a full lap and soaked it in while passing the trophy from Stamkos to Victor Hedman to Savard to Alex Killorn to Ryan McDonagh to Pat Maroon to Kucherov to Vasilevskiy.

“I’m so happy. I didn’t want to go back to Montreal,” said Kucherov. “The fans in Montreal, come on. They acted like they won the Stanley Cup last game. Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? Their Final was last series, OK?"

The Lightning forged their mettle from disappointment. They were swept out of the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019 after tying an NHL record with a 62-win season, prompting general manager Julien BriseBois to make roster moves that sharpened the edges around his sterling core.

Then they ruthlessly picked apart opponents while reeling off two straight championships. Bad bounces or injuries like the one that knocked Killorn out of the Cup Final didn’t introduce any doubt.

“I think it's just the calm inside the room,” said Savard, ironically a former member of that Blue Jackets team. “I think there's never ever some panic. I think no matter what happens, we stay focused.

“You learn from guys who have been through that road.”

The Lightning didn’t blink after missing a chance to eliminate the Islanders in Game 6, or after failing to complete a sweep of the Canadiens in Game 4 at the Bell Centre. They just continued to prioritize process over results -- a message Cooper hammered home repeatedly.

They also wrapped their arms around the chance to become just the second NHL team in two decades to go back-to-back, openly acknowledging that salary cap challenges will force BriseBois to make some tough roster decisions this summer.

Tampa was only spared from that reality ahead of this season because of Kucherov’s December hip surgery, which forced Kucherov to sit out the entire 56-game schedule before returning for Game 1 of the playoffs.

They finished third in the Central Division without him, forcing them to open a first-round series with Florida on the road.

“We had so much uncertainty,” said Cooper. “Anybody can say what they want, but when you take the most dynamic offensive player out of your lineup, and say, 'Hey you're going to still make the playoffs’ -- you're not so sure about that all the time.”

Once they welcomed Kucherov back and got into the comfort of the post-season they found their legs. Kucherov led all scorers for the second-straight year, finishing with 32 points.

“I don’t know how anyone can miss the entire regular season, come back and do what he did,” said Blake Coleman. “He deserves all the credit.”

Brayden Point also had another standout run and fell one game short of matching an NHL record by scoring in nine-straight games. Stamkos, limited to just five shifts and one memorable goal during the bubble Cup, was a full participant this time around and contributed eight goals.

The Coleman-Yanni Gourde-Barclay Goodrow line was a tone-setter, and Coleman provided a memorable dagger by diving to meet the puck and score with one second left in the second period of a Game 2 that Montreal had been dominating.

“It was a tough season playing against the same teams over and over again, but the closer we got to the playoffs, it felt like our game really came together and then the playoffs started and it was just like we picked up where we left off last last post-season,” said Victor Hedman.

This second Stanley Cup might have been even sweeter.

They clinched it in front of a frothing Amalie Arena crowd that included 200 friends and family members after doing it in the quiet of Rogers Place in September. There’ll almost certainly be another championship boat parade to celebrate in the days ahead. And this summer the Cup is expected to travel again, potentially giving players the chance to bring it to their hometowns after getting individual days in the Tampa area last fall.

Even after winning it once, the Lightning remained hungry.

“You can't soak it in yet,” said Stamkos. “It’s so fresh. It’s so new. You don’t even realize what’s going to happen. We won the Stanley Cup and we still have the Stanley Cup. That’s just amazing.”

The rainbow on the other side of the storm.

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