The Lightning Are As Perfect As Any NHL Team Can Be
9:01 AM EDT on July 8, 2021
I do have to credit the Habs for making Wednesday night's Game 5 not quite as much of an inevitable coronation as it could have been. The Lightning and the Canadiens played 33 minutes of scoreless hockey in Tampa Bay before Ross Colton—a rookie!—netted the game-winning and only goal of this NHL season's final game. Until the last few seconds of the 1-0 victory that earned the Bolts their second Stanley Cup in a row, the Habs always felt like they could extend things just a little longer. But when this Lightning team hasn't been spectacular—and they've been spectacular a lot—they've nevertheless proven to be remarkably resilient. It was, once again, their uncanny ability to avoid losing two games in a row that had them celebrating in front of their home crowd at 11 p.m., as Steven Stamkos reunited with Lord Stanley and Andrei Vasilevskiy got well-deserved Conn Smythe honors for helping end all four Lightning playoff series with a shutout.
What more is there to say about this team that wasn't said last year? Or, frankly, during their Presidents' Trophy run in 2018–19? For three years in a row now the Lighting have been the best NHL team of either the regular season or the playoffs (and the year before they were the best in the East), with only a completely random pants-shitting against Columbus working against any claim of dynasty. Zoom out even further—to that 2014–15 team that still had Stamkos and Kucherov and Palat and Hedman and Johnson and Killorn and even a young Vasilevskiy—and this run looks even more impressive. This is a franchise that, in seven seasons, has won the Cup twice, won a Prince of Wales trophy, won a Presidents' Trophy, and came within a single Game 7 of making the Final two other times.
Almost entirely through drafting and acquiring unproven and often obscure youngsters, the Lightning front office put together a roster whose every piece is an object of envy, and which has been able to weather what could have been catastrophic injuries to put together the sparkling resume they now own, and may continue to embellish. There's the best goalie in the world in Vasi, and a modern-day Nick Lidstrom in Victor Hedman, and the scariest and perhaps most fun group of forwards I've ever laid eyes on. (One big loophole fell their way, too, as Nikita Kucherov's regular season absence allowed them to sneak around the salary cap while still winning more than enough games to get into the playoffs this year, but I am never going to complain about a team smartly spending large amounts of money.)
It's not all that difficult to pick out other, longer or more decorated runs from the history of the NHL, but in the salary cap era—not to mention the extended playoffs compared to the very old days—both quick turns of luck and a tightly controlled market conspire to work against any one franchise's long-term success. When they got boomed with a broom by the Blue Jackets in 2019, the Lightning learned how suddenly a talented team and a historical season can dissolve into irrelevance. But, against the odds, so many of those same key guys just lifted the Cup for the second time.
"This group, no matter what happens from here on out, this group is going to be etched in history forever, and that's pretty F'ing special," Stamkos said after the game. "I'm so proud of the guys. You can't soak it in yet. It's so fresh. It's so new. You don't even realize what's going to happen. We won the Stanley Cup and we still have the Stanley Cup. That's just amazing."
Stammer's little aside about the team's uncertain future carries real meaning, because it looks quite tricky to navigate, as the franchise is already stretching the outer limits of what's financially possible in today's NHL. Key depth guys Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow will be tough to afford as re-signings, and Ondrej Palat, a year away from free agency, is probably attractive trade bait to get back under the cap, and Brayden Point, one more year from hitting the RFA market, is due a huge payday soon. Plus, there's still the expansion draft. But with their title win last night, Tampa has earned the right to stop looking into the future for at least the next little while. Their place in history—as a great team, not an underachieving one—is secure. This series with Montreal will not go down as an especially memorable Stanley Cup Final—it'll mostly be notable down the line for the contrast between this year's atmosphere and last year's lack thereof. But these Lightning were and will always be an unforgettable and perhaps inimitable team.