The best and the deepest, rolled into one. That’s what makes the Tampa Bay Lightning so hard to beat. That’s what makes them back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
They were the most talented team in hockey when they posted an NHL-record-tying 62 victories in 2018-19. In the two seasons since, they’ve morphed into the most complete team in hockey. And that, even more than their unrivalled star power, has solidified their consecutive Cups. In their championship-clinching victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 of the final Wednesday night, it was the sum of the parts carrying Tampa to glory rather than its shiny superstars. Well, that, and superb goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
As the Habs showed with a gutsy Game-4 win, they obviously weren’t going to make it easy in Game 5, not even with a rowdy, almost-capacity crowd of 18,000-plus thirsting for the Cup. Rope-a-doping the Lightning for the first 30 minutes, the Habs relied on the elements that got them this far during their improbable run: historically elite penalty-killing and the calm, efficient, puck-engulfing goaltending of Carey Price. It helped Montreal withstand a 13-4 shot margin in period 1 and kill three Lightning power plays on the night.
But the Lightning have been the superior team for most of this season and for this series. Montreal could only keep the juggernaut at bay for so long. Despite Tampa boasting some of the world’s most elite players, it was a lunch-pail trio breaking the game open at 13:27 of the second period, when defenseman Ryan McDonagh threaded the puck to bruising blueliner David Savard, who drove to the net and made the pass of his life through the slot, giving left winger Ross Colton a tap in. It ended up being the game’s only goal, the Cup clincher.
Colton was a nine-goal scorer as a fourth-liner in the regular season. On a team that develops players as well as the Lightning do, however, a nine-goal scorer is capable of delivering in the biggest of moments. Despite the complaints from opposing fan bases of salary-cap circumvention allowing the Bolts to magically heal right winger Nikita Kucherov and center Steven Stamkos from their injuries in time for Game 1 of the post-season when their cap hits no longer counted, it was Tampa’s depth making the difference in the final. The four game-winning goals went to Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Tyler Johnson and Colton. Tampa had 13 different players score in the final.
Left winger Alex Killorn didn’t realize how prophetic he was being when he championed the team’s depth before the series. He had no idea he’d break his fibula blocking a shot in Game 1, as he revealed during a post-game interview on live TV after Game 5. The Lightning didn’t miss a beat without him, and it was Colton, who occupied Killorn’s spot on the second line in Game 5, coming through with the winning goal.
“Everybody chips in,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper after the victory. “It’s just done different ways. Last year, (Brayden) Point and (Nikita Kucherov) and (Ondrej) Palat carried us to a Stanley Cup, and this year you got it from them, but you got it from other people. It’s just a remarkable feeling.”
Of course, the Lightning were fuelled by some otherwordly individual efforts, too. Kucherov’s 32 points led all post-season scorers, and center Brayden Point became the fifth player ever to score 14 or more goals in consecutive post-seasons. But it was the masked man giving Tampa its most consistent backbone game in and game out. Vasilevskiy’s shutout in Game 5 was his fifth straight in a series-clinching victory. He became the first goaltender since Ken Dryden in 1978-79 to win every game for his team in consecutive post-season runs. Vasilevskiy’s 34 wins over the past two playoffs are an NHL record over a two-year span thanks to two extra Ws gained in the round-robin last season. He posted a .942 save percentage in the 2021 final, capped with 22 saves in Game 5, and became the first goaltender to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP since Jonathan Quick in 2011-12.
No matter how special it felt to hoist the Cup in a vacant Rogers Place last September in the Edmonton COVID-19 bubble, the 2021 Cup hit different for a Lightning team that dressed 14 players in Game 5 who were on the ice when they won the Cup last season.
“You never forget your first,” Cooper said before laughing heartily when he realized he’d uttered a double entendre. “But we were missing this. That was a big thing for us. We didn’t get to share it with…not only our fans, but Florida and Carolina and the Islanders, every team in the league is watching the fans be able to come back in the building, even in Montreal. That’s why we play. It’s unique, and it was just like we were doing it for the first time again. It was amazing to have fans in the building, and so it’s like we’ve won two completely different Stanley Cups, and that’s what makes it extremely special for us. You do one without fans and then you do one in your home building, and we couldn’t have written the script any better.”
“It’s tough to put into words, really, after what we had to go through in the bubble last year,” McDonagh said. “We really wanted to seize this opportunity tonight in front of the crowd, in front of family and found a way to get it done. It’s been a great feeling, and we’re going to celebrate all night long.”
Perhaps no one among the returnees from last season’s team felt the joy more than captain Stamkos, who, after being limited to just 2 minutes and 47 seconds of play last post-season, was along for the entire journey this time around.
“For me, last year, my whole career, going through those different adverse moments, and then you get rewarded with back-to-back Stanley Cups… that’s life,” he said. “It kicks you down, and you get back up, and you have a support staff and you’re so thankful for those people. Obviously it was amazing to be part of every single game this year and to help out and do everything I can. Last year was pretty special, the 2 minutes and 47 seconds. This year, even more special. We’re back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. That doesn’t happen very often. It was a hell of a ride, a hell of a team, and I just appreciated every second I was on the ice.”
As Stamkos added, the team never lost sight of the notion that 2020-21 might go down as the last run for the team as is. With the Lightning having blown past the salary cap and a good player pretty much guaranteed to get plucked by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, the lineup will undoubtedly look different next season. The Bolts made sure to savor this run, Stamkos explained, and virtually every player speaking in Wednesday’s post-game Zoom conferences took a moment to voice his amazement at winning back-to-back titles. Perhaps Killorn summarized it best:
“This group, in the salary-cap era, to go back to back,” he said, “I think we’ll go down as one of the better teams to ever do it.”