TAMPA, Fla. — For more than five months, through the most unique and unpredictable of NHL seasons, the Tampa Bay Lightning propelled themselves toward this moment in history.
Winning the most sacred trophy in sports — 34 1/2 pounds of shiny nickel and silver alloy — was so redeeming, they had to do it again. And along the way, they created a legacy rarely seen in today’s game.
Last year, they did it inside an empty arena in Edmonton. This time, following their Cup-clinching 1-0 Game 5 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night, they paraded around home ice with the Stanley Cup over their heads in front of a packed house of 18,110 at Amalie Arena with a few hundred additional fans watching outside in Thunder Alley.
The Stanley Cup likely will return to the north country as Tampa Bay assistant Derek Lalonde is a St. Lawrence Central graduate.
Today’s salary cap era doesn’t allow great teams to stick together, but unique circumstances allowed the Lightning to keep their group together for another run. And the Lightning became just the second team since the cap was initiated in 2005-06 to win back-to-back Stanley Cups, joining the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins. Tampa Bay became just the eighth franchise in the NHL era to win the Cup in consecutive seasons.
The Lightning also became the first team since 2015 — when the Lightning had to watch the Blackhawks celebrate winning the final in Chicago — to clinch the Cup on home ice.
Their legacy will be one of redemption and resilience. Their season started playing inside arenas so desolate they could hear the sound of blades on ice. They endured strict coronavirus protocols, were isolated in their hotels on the road and played every game with a huge bull’s-eye on their backs.
A team built on skill reinvented itself with grit. When they bought in on being a better defensive team, they became championship caliber. And in the playoffs, games are decided by how many goals a team prevents, not how many it can score.
After going deep into the second period of Wednesday’s Game 5 without a single goal, rookie forward Ross Colton redirected a puck past Montreal goaltender Carey Price, sending an increasingly nervous Amalie Arena crowd to its feet.
The two players in the Lightning lineup who went into this playoff run without a Cup — Colton and defenseman David Savard — connected for the go-ahead goal with 6:33 left in the second period.
Before the Canadiens fell behind 3-0 in this series, they advanced to the final by shutting down their opponents’ top scorers. And that’s what Montreal was starting to do to the Lightning’s big guns.
Colton had moved up to the Lightning’s second forward line after Alex Killorn went down to injury, and his charge to the net will now live in Tampa Bay sports history.
The Lightning won a puck battle against the near boards, and the puck landed with Savard along the far side. Once the Lightning won possession, Colton went to the net, won a joust with Canadiens defenseman Joel Edmundson for positioning in front of the net, and redirected Savard’s pass through traffic into the back of the net.
Before Colton’s goal, the Canadiens had blanketed the Lightning’s top-six forwards, as Tampa Bay’s third and fourth lines carried the Lightning. Combine that with Price starting to gain his own mojo following a mediocre start to the series, and it made for a dangerous combination.
As it has been throughout the final, and throughout the playoffs, scoring the first goal mattered. The team that scored first in each game prevailed.
And with Andrei Vasilevskiy in net, a one-goal lead going into the third period — while nerve-wracking — was enough to claim the Cup.
Vasilevskiy recorded 22 saves, including 10 in the second period, and withstood a desperate, last-chance, third-period onslaught by the Canadiens.
With his fifth straight series-clinching shutout, Vasilevskiy is 7-0 this postseason coming off a loss and 14-0 over the past two playoffs. He also became just the second goaltender in NHL history to play every game of back-to-back Stanley Cup runs, joining Montreal’s Ken Dryden in 1977 and 1978.