In 2015, the Tampa Bay Lightning fell just short of achieving the ultimate goal that every professional hockey team has: winning the Stanley Cup. They were a young core that offensively could score with the best of them, but in the finals, they ran into a much more experienced team and lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks.
In 2019, the Lightning had one of the best seasons a team in the modern era has ever had, but they shockingly got swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Sports analysts across the league claimed that the Lightning just didn’t have the mental toughness and discipline to win the Stanley Cup.
Though it can be said that 2020 isn’t anybody’s year, a newfound mental fortitude drove Tampa Bay through the playoffs, where they exorcised their demons and proved all of their doubters wrong. The Lightning is truly the best team in the NHL, and they finally proved it by winning the Stanley Cup. On Monday, Sept. 28, Tampa Bay closed out the Dallas Stars in Game 6 to clinch the league championship.
As much as the Lightning were doubted heading into the season, they cruised to and through the postseason, and not a single series they were in went to seven games. They started off by avenging their 2019 postseason defeat by eliminating the Columbus Blue Jackets in five games before moving on to embarrass the Boston Bruins in five games as well. Boston, who many had picked to win the Stanley Cup, looked old and worn out against the upstart Lightning. In the Conference Finals, they ran into a scrappy New York Islanders team that played tough but lacked the depth of talent required to take down a powerhouse like Tampa Bay.
Even in the Cup Final it never felt like the Stars were up to Lightning’s level, aside from the first game of the series. Arguably the worst loss of their playoff run, walking away from Game 1 lit a fire under Tampa Bay, and they responded by winning three games straight and putting the Stars on the ropes with the 3-1 series lead. Dallas won a tight Game 5 that went to double overtime to cut the Lightning’s series lead to 3-2, but just like Thanos, Tampa Bay’s victory was inevitable.
The Lightning showed out in Game 6, showing why they stand above everyone else in the entire league. All the little things that make a hockey team great were truly on display, including lockdown defense, as Tampa Bay dominated the Stars, only allowing eight shots on goal against in the first two periods. The Lightning’s leading goal scorer during the playoffs, center Brayden Point, scored the opening goal midway through the first period. Forward Blake Coleman added a second goal seven minutes into the second period. Once the third period hit, any wind that was left in Dallas’s sail was all but gone, and it appeared the Lightning would be lifting the Stanley Cup by the end of the night.
In the third period, the Stars pushed hard to score, but goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy shut the door and posted a 22 save shutout, leading the Lightning to win the Stanley Cup. Seeing the likes of Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, and Jon Cooper raise the Cup after having been through many failures in previous years was quite the uplifting sight, a true reminder to never lose your determination to pursue your dreams no matter how many times you fall short.
A lot of other veterans raised the Cup for the first time as well. Veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who came close when he was a member of the New York Rangers back in 2014, finally claimed his first Cup. Fellow veteran defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who fell short with multiple teams with real Cup hopes, finally secured his place amongst the greats with his first championship. Depth players, like defenseman Zach Bogosian, a former first-line starter who had traveled across the league with brief stops with multiple teams, proved that they could be strong role players on a championship team.
Assistant captain defenseman Victor Hedman took home the Conn Smythe trophy as the NHL playoff MVP. Hedman truly had one of the best postseasons runs a defenseman has ever had. The 6-foot-6-inch Swedish mountain of a man shut down the best players on the opposing teams, all while being an offensive juggernaut from the blue line. Hedman scored 10 goals in the postseason, ranking fourth all-time for goals in a single postseason. He totaled 22 points in 25 games. That total ranks 11th all-time on defensive playoff scoring. Hedman did everything for the Lightning and truly deserved the MVP award.
When looking back at this Lightning team a lot of people may put an asterisk next to their Cup win because of the unique situation COVID-19 put the league into. A championship by any means, where it be a lockout season or any other altered season, has always been of full value and is just as legitimate as any other Cup win in the past. This Lightning team had to persevere through so much, having to spend just over two months away from their homes and families. That is a big sacrifice. They had to take multiple months off of hockey when COVID-19 shut down everything in March but then came back in top form to win the Cup months later. In some ways, it was more impressive than winning a Stanley Cup in a normal fashion.
The scary thing about this Lightning team is that they have it set up so their core players will be around and in their prime for the next few years. A new hockey dynasty could be on the horizon, leaving fans much to look forward to in years to come.