A Stanley Cup and Lightning team for the ages

Tribune Content Agency

The Lightning’s quest for the Stanley Cup seemed interminable and, at times, this season has felt endless. Perhaps it is fitting that 2020 will now live forever in Tampa Bay.

Yes, the wait is finally over. For a group of players who have been stalking the Cup since 2015, and for a community of fans accustomed to late-season heartbreak. The Lightning have been the winningest franchise in the NHL for the past half-dozen seasons, and now they have the trophy that finally validates their blood, sweat and careers.

Tampa Bay beat Dallas 2-0 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final on Monday night, ending a chase that has alternated from exhilarating to exasperating and back again. Brayden Point, hockey’s most overlooked superstar, started the Lightning on the way with a first-period goal.

And so the pandemic-delayed season that took 12 months to complete was finally conquered by the team that took an eternity to grow up.

Yes, it is now permissible to remember them that way. It was never a question of talent or desire with these guys, it just took them a while to realize the fancy skills that made them the darlings of the regular season were not enough to turn them into playoff legends.

Two Game 7 losses in the Eastern Conference final in 2016 and 2018, a Game 6 departure in the Stanley Cup final in 2015 and, most demoralizing, a first-round disappearing act after winning the President’s Trophy in 2019.

The Tampa Bay Lightning again have an opportunity to hoist the Stanley Cup as they face the Dallas Stars in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final.

Turns out, those were just obligatory tearjerkers in hockey’s ultimate tale of redemption.

So call the engravers. Tell them to start carving immediately, because Lord Stanley’s Cup has a long journey ahead from the bubble in Edmonton. They need a prominent spot on the Cup for Point’s name, and one for Victor Hedman, too. Ondrej Palat will certainly be near the top of the ring, and Nikita Kucherov is clearly deserving, too.

Mourn, if you want, the circumstances. It stinks that after all the near-misses and disappointments, the Lightning finally won in an empty arena thousands of miles from home. The players deserved better, and so did their fans. They deserved to stand in the same building, to raise their voices to the rafters and to bask in a glory both rare and unifying.

But those are complaints for another day. For now, the Lightning rule the NHL for the first time since 2004, and that is enough for fans who have learned that expectation can be the dirtiest word of all.

So this one is for you, Tampa Bay.

Embrace it, cherish it, and never forget it.

Never forget Point streaking past a defender in Game 4, and befuddling a goaltender as he moved the puck back and forth in a blur. Never forget Hedman smashing his stick in a hallway after twisting his ankle on eve of the playoffs, and then coming back to have a postseason unlike any defensemen in the past 25 years. Never forget Steven Stamkos showing the world what brilliance and perseverance looks like in 2:47 of sublime hockey.

This one is for the doubters, too.

And count me among them. Those who wondered if Lightning teams of the past were selfless enough to make it this far. Who wondered if the postseason shortcomings had more to do with a character flaw than roster and strategy issues.

Four times in the past six years, they looked like they were good enough to win this Cup. And four times, they fell short. Yet, during this postseason, the Lightning set a standard for clutch performances that others will be measured against. From the start of the first round (excluding round robin), Tampa Bay was a remarkable 6-2 in overtime, and 10-3 in one-goal games. They played more overtime minutes than any playoff team in NHL history.

So remember how the Lightning chose leaders instead of stars after the Columbus debacle. Remember how Kevin Shattenkirk and Pat Maroon brought professionalism to the locker room and how Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Zach Bogosian brought grit to the lineup.

And, yes, this one is for the owner.

Tampa Bay is not an easy market for a pro team to thrive in. The money, demographics and geography conspire against success. The Lightning had four owners in their first 17 seasons, before Jeff Vinik bought the team in 2010.

All Vinik did was bring stability where there once was chaos, and brought money where there was once was a line of creditors. He never complained about last year’s disappointment, he simply accepted responsibility and predicted better days to come.

This one is for the coach, as well.

Jon Cooper wore the shame of last year’s playoff exit with the same quiet, stoicism that has always driven haters crazy. And now, a year after a first-round sweep, Cooper’s boys rampaged through the postseason without ever being pushed to a Game 7.

As for all the rest?

Well, this one is for the ages.


©2020 Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.)

Visit the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.) at www.tampabay.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.