Lightning's Stanley Cup win a just reward after long, heartbreaking journey

EDMONTON -- They had thought so much about this over the years that Steven Stamkos said there was no decision to be made. As soon as he got his hands on the Stanley Cup for the first time, there was no doubt he was passing it directly to Victor Hedman.

The most emotional moment those two shared here came before Gary Bettman formally awarded the trophy to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Stamkos put on his gear with three minutes remaining in Monday’s series-clinching victory over the Dallas Stars and had an extended embrace with his longtime teammate in the corner immediately after the final buzzer sounded on a 2-0 win.

"I think I told him I loved him 100 times," said Stamkos. "I mean what can you say? We’ve been together since Day 1 and to go through all the ups and downs, I mean this is what you play for. … It’s just love and admiration.

"This is one of the best feelings in the world and I’m so thankful that I get to share this moment with Heddy."

The hardest Stanley Cup playoffs to stage may have been the hardest ever to win. And the contender that’s travelled the most heartbreaking road of them all could finally shed tears of joy.

The Lightning are champions again.

"You force yourself not to think about it, but you can’t help yourself," said Hedman. "You think about it all the time."

The final night inside the NHL bubble was destined to be sleepless and champagne soaked. Only a small handful of family members were able to make it inside Rogers Place to witness this most unusual of Cup victories, but the intimacy also added to the experience.

The Cup went from Stamkos to Hedman to Braydon Coburn to Ryan McDonagh to Alex Killorn to Luke Schenn to Zach Bogosian to Pat Maroon to Nikita Kucherov to Andrei Vasilevskiy to Ondrej Palat to Tyler Johnson to Brayden Point… and it did so in record time.

The Lightning players stood in a semi-circle and applauded each Cup pass, but there were very few extended twirls around the ice surface in an empty arena. You could see the pride in Curtis McElhinney’s eyes as he skated towards the northeast end of Rogers Place to salute his parents Bob and Shirley.

Barclay Goodrow did the same with his parents Janice and John.

Stamkos, injured for all but one game of the playoffs, took the Stanley Cup from Bettman but only after the entire team posed with it first. The organization had requested that change to usual protocol and it only made sense after everything it took to get here.

The record books will make the Lightning’s second ever championship look much easier on paper than it was in reality. The 16-6 record they compiled during these playoffs belies the fact that they played all but five shifts without Stamkos. It also won’t reflect the extra 216 minutes 14 seconds of overtime required -- the equivalent of more than three and a half additional games.

Then there’s the 41 nights the players and staff spent living behind fences at Toronto’s Hotel X, followed by a 24-night stay on floors 15-17 at the JW Marriott in Edmonton. The Lightning bonded over nightly dinners together and leaned on mental performance coach Ryan Hamilton, but the battle waged between the ears was nearly as intense as the one on the ice coming out of the COVID-19 pause.

"Probably the best part of this thing will be when we check out," head coach Jon Cooper said hours before a clincher that saw Point and Blake Coleman score goals while Vasilevskiy posted his first shutout of the playoffs.

They will fly home Tuesday morning with a long-anticipated Stanley Cup.

This was supposed to happen a year ago, when Tampa followed a record-breaking 62-win regular season by being swept out of the first round by Columbus. That came with some soul searching, and an appearance from motivational speaker Jon Gordon at last September’s training camp.

His message: Own what happened, don’t worry about defending your position as an elite team and instead attack something new -- wise words at the outset of an unpredictable 361-day season that seemingly never wanted to end.

"Basically we went from the outhouse to the penthouse. That’s what happened," said Cooper.

Remember, the Lightning had lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final three times during the Stamkos Era -- 2011, 2016 and 2018 -- and were beaten by Chicago in a six-game Stanley Cup Final in 2015.

They pushed and pushed and pushed until finally puncturing the bubble.

As much as this championship run was boosted by some bold moves from general manager Julien BriseBois, it was his patience with the core that truly paid off. Hedman logged more than 26 minutes per game in the playoffs and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy after scoring 10 goals, the third-highest total by a defenceman in history; Point led all skaters with 14 goals and produced three multi-point games in the Final; Kucherov established a new playoff assists record for wingers (27) and led all scorers (34); and Vasilevskiy played every minute in goal with a shiny .927 save percentage.

Even Stamkos contributed. Suffering from an undisclosed lower-body injury following core muscle surgery in March, he was only able to return for five shifts in the first period of Game 3 against Dallas.

And, wouldn’t you know it, he broke free and scored a goal-scorer’s goal on the only shot he registered.

"He played the best two minutes of hockey you’re ever going to see in the playoffs," said Hedman. "I’m at a loss for words how much he means to us in that room even though he’s not playing. He’s around us, he’s battling through things that you can’t imagine…

"So many emotions, it’s going to take months maybe for it to sink in, but we’re going to be champions forever. We’re going to be on that Cup forever."

The Lightning had to steel themselves right from the beginning of Round 1. In a rematch with Columbus, the opening game lasted more than six hours before Point scored the winner in quintuple overtime.

"If we don’t win that game, all of a sudden doubt creeps in," said Cooper. "If we don’t win that game, who knows? Columbus might be in our head."

That series showed the value of Coleman and Goodrow, who were both acquired at the trade deadline for first-round picks and dropped onto an effective third line with Yanni Gourde.

Schenn, Bogosian and Maroon -- all free-agent signings from the prior 15 months -- each had moments during the series wins over Boston and the New York Islanders that followed.

And Kevin Shattenkirk, signed in August 2019 after being bought out by the Rangers, scored an overtime winner for the Lightning in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.

In addition to shifting the roster mix, there was a change in approach. The Lightning were still more talented than pretty much every team they came up against this season, but they started to focus more on the goals they could prevent than the ones they could score.

"Maybe our mentality has changed a little bit. We pay attention all over the ice," said Hedman.

"We used to be a team that wasn’t good enough to beat you 3-0," added Cooper. "We had to beat you 9-0."

They chased this breakthrough for a long, long time.

Stamkos and Hedman were young members of the squad that played three rounds in 2011. They were eventually joined by Palat, Killorn, Johnson and Cooper following their Calder Cup win with AHL Norfolk in 2012. That group was then bolstered by the emergence of Kucherov and Point, second- and third-round picks, respectively, who would go in the first pick or two of any redraft done today.

Anthony Cirelli, who clinched the Eastern Conference Final with an overtime goal, represents more value mined out of the third round. Vasilevskiy made good on his promise as a 19th overall selection. Mikhail Sergachev arrived via the Jonathan Drouin trade, McDonagh was acquired in 2018 for Vlad Namestnikov and a first-rounder and Erik Cernak was added in the Ben Bishop deal.

Through all the ups and downs, BriseBois and his predecessor Steve Yzerman didn’t touch the core. Even after the embarrassment of becoming the first Presidents’ Trophy winners to be swept in the first round last year, plus an uninspiring 17-13-4 start to the 2019-20 season, BriseBois kept searching for the right complement to his stars.

The Lightning had won more games, scored more goals and played in more playoff series than any team over the last six seasons. Finally they have a championship to show for all that time spent in the NHL’s penthouse.

"My hat’s off to every single player and every single person in this organization," said Stamkos. "It was amazing to be a part of. This whole run, it was so special this year to do it in the style that we did it."

They’ve finally done it.

The journey, the entire thing, was worth it.

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