Silencing the din inside the Amalie Arena for a moment, Gary Bettman looked out over the Tampa Bay Lightning and harked back to the dark days of the pandemic, perhaps for the last time.
The NHL commissioner called on not just Captain Steven Stamkos but the entire team to touch, kiss and lift the Stanley Cup as champions once again. It was a far cry from tradition of presenting the holy grail of hockey to the captain to take back to his team, and the Lightning launched another pandemic hockey season as they did the previous one, winning their second championship in 10 months.
It was a familiar sight for back-to-back champions, even if it was different in every possible way.
After the Lightning beat the Montreal Canadiens 1-0 on Wednesday night to finish the final in five games, Stamkos lifted the Cup in front of 18,110 fans, 18,110 more than the last time he did so in September.
Pyrotechnics soared around him to celebrate not only Tampa Bay’s victory during a pandemic once again, but also the end of another grueling season in the context of protocols, restrictions and anguish. As Stamkos took the Cup for another spin, the players raised their phones to capture video of the fans, the confetti and the joy of being able to truly celebrate.
“Full arena, incredible energy and another championship in Tampa,” Bettman said. “It feels like things are normal.”
Winning has become normal for the Lightning, who did it this time relying on their MVP goalkeeper for the playoffs, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and the only two Tampa Bay players on the ice without their names in the holy grail of hockey.
Vasilevskiy had a series-final shutout for the fifth time in a row, an NHL-record, since the 2020 final. Finishing with a handful in a frenzied final minute, he made 22 saves to remain undefeated in games after a loss in last two playoffs, both won by Tampa Bay in the pandemic.
“It’s very difficult to win the Stanley Cup,” Stamkos said. “And then you do it two years in a row, you deserve to go down in history.”
Ross Colton and David Savard were absent last year and made sure to make their mark in the final Tampa Bay title race. Savard placed Colton’s goal midway through the second period passing Canadiens stalwart Carey Price and the packed crowd roared.
“Doing it in front of our fans and our families, it’s so special, special,” said defender Victor Hedman. “It is out of this world.”
The scene couldn’t have been further from the empty and joyless arena where the Lightning won the Cup last September in a continent-wide quarantined bubble in Edmonton, Alberta. Tampa Bay joined Pittsburgh as the only consecutive Cup winner in the cap era, but did so even more impressively in the shortest span between championships in long NHL history.
Never losing twice in a row thanks to Vasilevskiy’s brilliance and one of the deepest squads built since the cap was implemented in 2005, Lightning solidified its status as a modern dynasty.
So deep? Nikita Kucherov had 32 points to join Mario Lemieux as the only players to lead the postseason in scoring two years in a row, and Brayden Point scored 14 goals in three rounds. Kucherov, Point and Hedman also played through injuries.
It was too much for the Canadiens, who once again relied on Price to keep them in a game and in the series. He finished with 29 saves.
The sunbelt franchise in a non-traditional market that didn’t even exist until 1992-93 went through the NHL’s most famous franchise to win this one. The third championship in franchise history denied Montreal a banner of the 25th league championship.
The Lightning also added another title for “Champa Bay” after Tom Brady led the NFL Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory in February. The Tampa Bay Rays won the American League pennant and went to the World Series last fall.
The mayor of Tampa Bay had suggested that the Lightning lose Game 4 on the road so they could win at home, and she fulfilled her wish as coach Jon Cooper’s team became the first since Chicago in 2015 to lift the Cup. at home.
“We didn’t get a chance to do that last year,” Stamkos said. “This is redemption so that you can spend this time with us. We wanted to win in Game 4. It didn’t work out. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that we have to do it in front of our amazing fans. “
The Canadiens ran out of gas in what was a surprise playoff run for a team that opened the postseason with the worst record of the 16 qualifiers.
“The resilience we show: just a good team to be a part of,” said Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher. “As painful as this is right now, sometimes you need to feel this to call yourself a champion.”
The Ray knows it well. His consecutive title streak was fueled by adversity from the team that overcame the impact of being swept by Columbus in the first round of the 2019 playoffs.
Tampa Bay didn’t have veteran forward Alex Killorn, who broke his left fibula blocking a shot in Game 1 of the final, underwent surgery last week and still wanted to play. He joined his teammates for a celebration like last year but different in every way.
“It’s like we’ve won two completely different Stanley Cups, and that’s what makes it extremely special to us,” said coach Jon Cooper. “You do one without fans and then you do one in your own building: we couldn’t have written the script better.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism