How do you top a Stanley Cup championship amidst a global pandemic? Following a crushing loss the year prior? While isolated from your entire circle of family and friends? You do it again. This time, in the Bay. Where you can relish the moment in front of those who love you, surrounded by a group that loves you more than words.
This was the case for the STANLEY CUP CHAMPION Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday. Scratch that. The back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The question becomes, how in the world did we get here?
The Bolts started off the season as they ended the last one. In an empty arena. Only this time, they were playing much less intense hockey. While every game matters, you often see a tired, lethargic group with a case of “Stanley Cup hangover” hit the ice come the start of next season.
Not the Bolts. They scorched out of the gates, and finished the season with 75 points in a 56-game season. Did I mention this was all without Nikita Kucherov, who was sidelined the entire season following hip surgery?
We want more
Still, despite a good statistical season, the Lightning weren’t satisfied. The injury bug hit and they limped their way into the dance, meeting their in-state rivals in the playoffs for the first time ever. Florida was a battle. A six-game discarding of the Cats the end result, with Kucherov looking like he hadn’t missed a beat.
All of a sudden, with the blue-line healthy and their stars buzzing, the Lightning had life, and carried that life forward. All the way through their next date, with the division-champion Carolina Hurricanes, whom they bounced in five games. Already, Bolts fans could tell this was a special group, capable of going all the way, with goaltender Andrei Vasilvskiy playing the best hockey of his life.
Finally, their toughest test yet, a seven-game tangle with the pesky New York Islanders, a familiar foe the Bolts had beaten in six games last year to move on to the Stanley Cup Final. This time around, all seven games were required. A gutsy effort on home ice and a Yanni Gourde shorthanded marker propelled the Lightning back to the ultimate stage. One opportunity to cement their legacy.
“Do you want to just win one and be done with it? Or do you want to be special?” Jon Cooper definitely played a massive role in keeping this group focused, and his boys truly did want it. They wanted to be special.
Five games later, after a dominant start to the series, the Lightning had a chance to win in front of their fans. Game 5. Wednesday night. Amalie Arena.
Setting Cup-clinching tone
The Bolts had a phenomenal start to game four, but nothing to show for it. A 12-2 shot advantage. A 1-0 hole. It was the same story on Elsa-hangover Wednesday night at Amalie. The shots after a period of play were 13-4 for Tampa Bay. Again, Carey Price shut the door. His counterpart? Only the best goaltender in the planet, in my humble, yet biased, opinion.
Since the infamous sweep of 2019, the Lightning have been fantastic following a loss. Specifically this postseason.
Like, unreal. A 6-0 record. Twenty-nine goals scored, eight goals allowed. That averages out to 4.8 goals-per-game, and 1.3 goals-against per game.
To the matter at hand, and the big question: how would they respond with a chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s grail on home ice?
Friendly confines fuel fire
Tampa had won five straight at Amalie Arena entering action Wednesday. An early icing call seemed to jumpstart what was a ridiculous, meticulously executed frame for the Lightning.
While the Bolts didn’t score, they laid the body and got their feel with the Kucherov line on the ice. Some outstanding work from Yanni Gourde drew the aforementioned icing.
There were a combined ten penalty minutes in the first, unusual for a game of this magnitude. The Lightning were great on the kill, creating some good looks shorthanded, spearheaded by Ryan McDonagh, who Lightning head coach Jon Cooper heralds as an unsung hero, and a guy who won’t get, but deserves, Conn Smythe Trophy votes.
The best look was likely a Kucherov one timer that Price had to fight off. Two shots on the man-advantage, and a frustrating period, but a productive one.
The Bolts knew they needed to do one thing and one thing only to finish the job: keep the foot on the gas.
Tale of two periods
At the start of the second period, it was all Habs. Montreal jumped out to an 8-3 shot advantage by the 12-minute mark in a stretch that saw them garner two power plays.
However, Tampa’s penalty kill was once again excellent. Aside from one mini-flurry in the Lightning end on the second man-advantage, it was smooth sailing for the Bolts while undermanned.
They eventually got one chance, and that was all they needed to take a 1-0 lead and get Amalie going absolutely bonkers.
Unsung hero clinches Cup
While he’s not flashy like Kucherov or lethal like Steven Stamkos, Ross Colton has made a name for himself in these playoffs, especially since Alex Killorn left the lineup after blocking a shot.
He has slotted in seamlessly on his line with Stamkos and Anthony Cirelli, a line Cooper said he needed more from prior to Game 4. Ask and you shall receive, ‘Coop.’
However, as nice as the finish was from Colton, this goal was all set up by a wonderful pinch and a better pass from David Savard. He flew in off the right point and laid an absolute dime on the tape of Colton in the goalmouth, giving the Lightning a 1-0 lead – a lead after two periods – a situation they’re more than familiar with.
Ross Colton gives the @TBLightning a 1-0 lead in Game 5. Tampa Bay owns an all-time record of 16-3 when scoring first in potential series-clinching games. #StanleyCup #NHLStats: https://t.co/oYl3FNSaLk pic.twitter.com/ry5ALgWlnV
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) July 8, 2021
Locking it down
The third period was classic Tampa Bay Lightning playoff hockey we’ve come to know and love. An absolute defensive lockdown.
They grinded out clock. They banged bodies. Barclay Goodrow blocked a bomb of a shot off the stick of Shea Weber midway through the period that clocked in at a mellow 101.6 miles per hour.
It’s hard to put into words what this moment must have felt like for the Lightning, being able to do it all again, in front of their fans. As time ticked down, all the faithful at Amalie were on their feet. Chorus upon chorus of chants, cheers, and all around joyfulness, as Tampa Bay will walk together. Forever.
They went… Back. To. Back.
Stanley Cup Champions: My thoughts
“Wow. Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. What a day. What. A. Day.” -Will Ferrell
That pretty much sums up my mood currently. It always takes a few days for a championship to sink in. I’m sure I’ll feel it all tomorrow.
That being said, the rollercoaster of emotions I’ve felt as a Lightning supporter as long as I can remember has been eventful to say the least. The heartbreak of the sweep. Before that a crushing loss for an underdog Bolts group to the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final. Another two ECF losses to the Caps and Pens along the road.
All worth it. 100%.
“You just won last year. Why do you even care?”
Two words. Steven Stamkos. It was truly rewarding to watch a true leader, who has battled through so much, be involved in a Cup run and taste ultimate glory at home.
Two more words. Jon Cooper, who put doubts to bed following the sweep with his second straight Cup.
Last time now. Cap circumvention.
The Kucherov situation was truly fair and the Lightning legitimately did nothing wrong, as previously stated. If nothing else, they exploited a loophole that needs to be fixed.
Walk together. Forever
As our Dan Herrejon will break down in a future piece, winning a championship bonds you and your teammates for life. Winning two? It’s almost unheard of in the modern day NHL to do so in order.
Cooper had a “Last Dance” mentality going in the room, and it paid off.
In all honesty, this will be the last time we see a fair share of these players on the ice together. So, enjoy it, Bolts Nation. Soak it all in – because this group did something incredibly special.
Cooper got his wish. Special. Determined. Pick any word. Two come to mind: Champions. Forever.
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