TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa Bay Lightning players surrounded the Stanley Cup again, putting their hands all over the trophy they won for the second time in 10 months.
It was a familiar sight for the NHL's 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 wrap up the final in five games, captain Steven Stamkos hoisted the Cup in front of 18,110 fans — 18,110 more than the last time he did back in September.
Pyrotechnics went off around him to celebrate not only Tampa Bay winning during a pandemic once again but the end of another grueling season played against the backdrops of protocols and restrictions.
"Full arena, incredible energy and another championship in Tampa," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "It feels like things are normal."
Winning has become normal for the Lightning, who did so this time relying on their playoff MVP goaltender and the only two players on the ice without their names on hockey's holy grail.
Andrei Vasilevskiy had a series-ending shutout for an NHL-record fifth consecutive time dating to the 2020 final. Finishing with a handful in a frantic final minute, he made 22 saves to remain undefeated in games after a loss over the past two playoffs, both contested during a deadly pandemic with the Lightning coming out on top each time.
"It's unbelievable," captain Steven Stamkos said. "This group, to go back to back after everything we went through last year in the bubble, to go through this year ups and downs it’s amazing."
Ross Colton and David Savard weren’t around last year and made sure to put their stamp on Tampa Bay’s latest title run. Savard set up Colton’s goal midway through the second period past Canadiens stalwart Carey Price that fired up the crowd at Amalie Arena.
"To do it in front of our fans and our families, it’s so special, special," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "It’s out of this world. Winning a Stanley Cup is one thing. But doing it in front of our fans, family means the world."
The scene couldn't have been any further from the mirthless, empty arena where the Lightning won the Cup last September in a quarantined bubble across the continent in Edmonton, Alberta. Tampa Bay joined Pittsburgh as the only back-to-back Cup winner in the salary-cap era, but even more impressively did it amid virus protocols with the shortest span between championships in the long history of the NHL.
Never losing twice in a row thanks to a combination of Vasilevskiy's brilliance and one of the deepest rosters constructed since the cap was implemented in 2005, the Lightning solidified their status as a modern-day dynasty.
How 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 through three rounds. Kucherov, Point and Hedman all played through injuries, too.
It was just to much for the Canadiens, who relied again on Price to keep them in a game. He finished with 29 saves — one too few to prevent a Cup celebration for Tampa Bay.
The sunbelt franchise in a nontraditional market that didn't even exist until 1992-93 went through the NHL's most storied franchise to do it. The Lightning won the Cup for the third time in franchise history and denied Montreal a 25th league championship banner.
The Lightning also added another title for "Champa Bay," with this title coming on the heels of Tom Brady leading the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory in February. The Tampa Bay Rays went to the World Series last fall.
Tampa Bay's mayor had suggested the Lightning lose Game 4 on the road so they could win at home, and she got her wish as coach Jon Cooper's team became the first since Chicago in 2015 to hoist the Cup on home ice.
"We didn’t get a chance to do that last year," Stamkos said. "This is redemption for them to be able to spend this time with us. We wanted to win in Game 4. It didn’t work out. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise we got to do it front of our amazing fans."
That paved the way not only for fans to roar in approval but for families to join in the celebration, something that wasn't possible in the bubble. Patrick Maroon became the fourth player in NHL history to win the Cup three years in a row with two teams while Kucherov joined Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky as the only players with 30-plus points in back-to-back playoffs.
The Canadiens ran out of gas in what was an otherwise surprise playoff run for a team that opened the postseason with the worst record of the 16 qualifiers. Montreal rallied from a 3-1 first-round series deficit against Toronto and eliminated Winnipeg and Vegas in reaching the final round for the first time since winning the Cup in 1993.
"The resilience that we showed: just a good team to be a part of," Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher said. "As painful as this is right now, sometimes you need to feel this to call yourself the champion."
The Lightning know that well. Their back-to-back title run was spurred by the adversity of the team overcoming the shock of getting swept by Columbus in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. They learned from each loss after that to build up a resolve that’s hard to maintain over as playoff hockey takes a toll.
Tampa Bay was without veteran forward Alex Killorn, who broke a fibula blocking a shot in Game 1 of the final. He joined his teammates for a celebration like last year but unlike it in every way.
"It’s unbelievable, the injuries these guys are playing with, the heart these guys have, man," forward Blake Coleman said. "It takes a hell of a lot to get here once. it takes even more to get here twice. I can’t tell you how much these guys mean to me. Just a hell of an effort all around and a great team win."