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The Tampa Bay Lightning are Stanley Cup champions, proper.
After winning inside the sanitary confines of a COVID-19-free bubble last summer miles away from home base, the Lightning earned the opportunity to celebrate a second consecutive championship — this time with fans, family, friends, and loved ones — following a Game 5 triumph over the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night at Amalie Arena.
Ross Colton is the unlikely goal-scoring hero for the Lightning, notching the lone marker in the nail-biting 1-0 victory, while netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy posted his fifth consecutive shutout to close out a postseason series, making 21 saves. He was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for his marvellous playoff performance.
Carey Price was the busier goaltender, stopping 30 shots.
Here's what happened in Game 5:
The right choice
Having three legitimate Conn Smythe Trophy candidates — of which didn't include the MVP from last summer's Stanley Cup triumph — really says everything about the Tampa Bay Lightning and their dominance as an organization and in these playoffs. Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and the ultimate winner, Vasilevskiy, each authored MVP-worthy bullet-points on their postseason resume. Kucherov won the scoring title by seven points, and did things only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux had when coupling in last year's totals. Point had a goal-scoring streak that fell one shy of the record, and was in many ways the heartbeat of the club.
In some ways though, the performances from Kucherov and Point, and their historical tidbits, worked to cannibalize each other, while Vasilevskiy remained that one dominant constant, never once seeing a dip in performance, or at least answering it with another peak.
Vasilevskiy was literally perfect in the club's four series victories, recording shutouts in each close-out game, and now has five in a row dating back to last season. He also prevented the Lightning from losing two consecutive games all postseason long, answering all seven losses with a victory and allowing just eight goals in those games total. Moreover, Vasilevskiy didn't miss one second of action (aside from moments when the Bolts used an extra attacker), avoiding being spelled by his backup for either performance or health reasons.
With two Stanley Cups, one Vezina Trophy plus a series of nominations, and now a Conn Smythe Trophy just five seasons into his career as a starter, Vasilevskiy might already be a Hall of Famer. This latest accolade is befitting of a netminder of that pedigree.
Right by Stamkos
If it didn't sit completely right from an outsider's perspective that Steven Stamkos was absent from last summer's championship run, it couldn't have felt that way to Stamkos himself. So for Gary Bettman to have handed Stamkos the Stanley Cup again, having played a major role from start to finish, it just feels right.
Stamkos isn't the player he once was; this team has transitioned from his to a co-opt of many. But this championship was more than a decade in the making for one of the great players of his generation. The satisfaction he's experiencing must be immense, and will eliminate any empty feelings — on his part, or from fans — after watching all but five shifts last summer.
And hey, the situation may have spawned a new Stanley Cup ceremony tradition, with the entire team crowding the commissioner for the trophy presentation, which is pretty cool.
History on Tampa's side
It would have taken something special from Montreal to prevent the Lightning from achieving what seemed like the inevitable tonight. Tampa had established itself as the better team through four games, and this was the perfect opportunity to lay claim to a miniature dynasty.
Also, there were the numbers — damning numbers. Numbers which developed into trends. Trends that seemed like certainties.
We know the Lightning are simply unbeatable after a loss. Tampa Bay was 6-0 following a defeat entering Game 5, and 13-0 when dating back to last summer's bubble run. Compounding all that, the Lightning were 15-2 when scoring first in the playoffs. And when they held that lead into the second intermission, the Lightning had a 43-2 regular-season record from this season to lean on when entering the third period ahead.
Not all 1-0 leads are equal. And this one seemed insurmountable.
Any way you like
As for the game specifically, perhaps it wasn't exactly what most had expected. An offensive explosion from the Lightning seemed like a distinct possibility given the flow of the series, and the opportunity that was in front of an organization that deserved to win in the setting they did.
They've won in that manner many times in the postseason, overwhelming teams with incomparable layers of talent and cruising to victories. But the Lightning also have something far more difficult to produce in their repertoire as well, which is the perfect defensive game, of which can be undone by just the smallest of mistakes.
So credit to Montreal, which forced the Lightning to do the latter.
After a dominant first period for the Lightning which failed to produce a lead, the Canadiens were working their way back into the game, and actually began to control the run of play for a reasonable stretch. It was trending that way enough that it came as something of a surprise when David Savard set up Colton for the only goal of the game — especially when it was a direct result from a scrum along the boards, because Montreal was winning most of the battles at that point.
With the attack not quite clicking but the lead established, Tampa switched into that lockdown defensive structure. It took over 10 minutes in the third period for Montreal to record even two shots on net, and all Montreal could muster was seven in the period altogether.
I have said it all spring (or summer): what makes the Lightning so special is their ability to win in many different ways. They don't fold when Option A isn't working, they adapt and dominate through other means. It's truly what sets them apart.
And it's why they are back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
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