The Tampa Bay Lightning did it again, struck twice if you will, taking the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row.
Tampa rookie Ross Colton will go down as the hero after scoring the Cup-winning goal at 13:27 of the second period, in a hard-fought 1-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 at Amalie Arena on Wednesday night.
It was a madcap finish, with Montreal’s Josh Anderson charging so hard on one play that he lay by the boards after a collision with the net with about 12 minutes to go. Tampa’s Barclay Goodrow limped off the ice after blocking a Shea Weber slapshot, laying it all on the line, with about eight minutes left.
But even as Montreal pulled Carey Price through most of the final two minutes, Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall in the Tampa net, posting the Cup-clinching shutout. Vasilevskiy was named the Conn Smythe winner as the most valuable player in the playoffs.
The Lightning did not lose consecutive games in the post-season, and a big reason was Vasilevskiy: 7-0 after a post-season loss. He also closed out four consecutive series with shutouts. He had five shutouts in all and allowed one goal or less in 10 of his 22 starts.
Captain Steve Stamkos raised the Cup for a second time, but this time at home, before a supercharged crowd that had chanted “We Want The Cup” through the third period.
The Lightning won last year in Edmonton, in a pandemic-induced bubble. This win ensures the team would be remembered as one of the great franchises in modern history. Instead of being a one-and-done team, they became the first since the 2016-17 Penguins to win the Cup in back-to-back seasons.
Nikita Kucherov led the playoffs in points for the second year in a row, with 32. He joins the likes of Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky in that regard. Brayden Point led in goals with 14.
- Hey, rookie! Colton scored the only goal, finishing off a passing play with David Savard by getting to the slot and redirecting the puck past Carey Price. Tampa had won a four-person battle along the boards, with Ryan McDonagh getting a loose puck and passing across to Savard.
Colton was playing in Alex Killorn’s spot on Tampa’s second line, with Anthony Cirelli and Stamkos. That line hadn’t produced much since Killorn left the series blocking a shot in the second game.
Colton was the 13th different goal scorer for Tampa in the series, a sign of their depth.
The team that scored first won each game this series, and the Lightning went 16-2 when scoring first in the playoffs. Montreal finished 1-7 when the other team scores first.
- Hope for Habs: The Canadiens didn’t go down without a fight. Price returned to form to backstop a win in Game 4, and he was just as good in the losing effort in Game 5. But that was as far as it went.
Still, Habs fans can’t be disappointed at all. This Cup run felt like it came out of nowhere, a gift to the province that was hit hardest in the earliest days of the pandemic and sacrificed the most — through strict curfews and other measures — to get the sometimes deadly virus under control.
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They had fans in the stands and a party in the city as the team shockingly upset the Maple Leafs in seven games, swept the Jets in four and took down Vegas in six.
If ever there was a team that was just happy to be in the Stanley Cup final, it was these Montreal Canadiens — the last team to qualify for the post-season, in part because COVID disrupted their season. They used three coaches: Claude Julien was fired, replaced on an interim basis by Ducharme, who was temporarily sidelined by COVID with Luke Richardson taking over for two weeks.
They manage to leave their fans smiling, with the emergence of young players Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki.
- Super Coleman: There were moments in both of Tampa’s Cup runs where it felt as if the title was their destiny. Last year against Dallas, it was a remarkable two minutes and 47 seconds played by Stamkos in Game 3. Having rehabbed from sports hernia surgery only to injure himself again on the eve of the playoffs, it was the only hockey he played through last summer’s bubble, and Stamkos scored a goal on his only shot.
This year, it was Blake Coleman’s Superman dive to redirect a pass and score in Game 2 as time was expiring in the first period. It was Montreal’s best effort of the final, but Coleman’s buzzer-beater deflated the Habs, helping Tampa to a win it probably didn’t deserve. Coleman scored a goal very much like it last year in the playoffs.
“How often does that happen? Score a goal like that in back-to-back playoff years?” said Cooper. “It’s just been a ride. Watching some of these players rise to the occasion.”
- School’s out: Cooper has been calling the final the “last day of school.” It’s a theme he’s come back to time and again, an awareness by the players that this is the last time many of them will play together.
They got a bit lucky in being able to keep so many players from their Cup win in 2020. It looked as if the band would be breaking up. New contracts taking hold on top of old generous contracts in a flat-cap world appeared to put the Lightning in a salary cap hell.
It looked as if GM Julien BriseBois would have to trade assets to get other teams to take expensive players off his hands, much like Leafs GM Kyle Dubas traded a first-round pick so that Carolina would take Patrick Marleau and his $6.5 million hit two years ago.
But Kucherov’s hip injury — investigated by the league and determined to be legitimate — meant his $9.5 million could essentially come off the books via long term injured reserve and the band could have one more run at the title.
Teams change every year, but this year could be more drastic.
“It’s one of those things that, you understand the situation, so let’s go out and do (the best) we can as a group because most likely, in a cap world, this group probably isn’t going to play together (again),” said Stamkos. “All of that stuff kind of figures itself out in the summertime.”
- Poetic justice: In a way, it was fitting that the Lightning won their second Cup in a row. The restrictions of the pandemic meant they couldn’t really celebrate their last win with fans, friends and families. Now they get the chance to do it right.
“When I first got here, it always felt like Tampa was everybody’s second favourite team, because somebody was from somewhere else and that was their team and when they got knocked out we were the second favourite. But now it feels like we’re everybody’s favourite team,” said Cooper. “The town, it’s a sports town. It’s passionate, from the Lightning to the Bucs to the Rays. It’s a unique situation of camaraderie between not only the athletes and the franchises but the fans. There’s a lot of pride in the town, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Kevin McGran is a Star sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran
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