Tampa Bay Lightning win the Stanley Cup

Stanley Cup Champs! The victorious Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate the Stanley Cup with proud NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in a memorable ceremony. All photos copyright NBC Sports via Getty Images courtesy Associated Press

It took a lot longer than expected. After a long four and a half month hiatus in this crazy year, the Tampa Bay Lightning are Stanley Cup Champions. What started as a 24 team expanded tournament turned into a coronation for the NHL’s best team. Bolt up!

The Lightning sure proved that they were the ultimate champion. They went through a NHL restart complete with training camp along with a round robin and an extra round for 16 participants. In the end, the 2019-20 Lightning were the last team left standing. They won the Stanley Cup by being a great team that combined skill, speed, skating, grit, determination, physicality and resiliency.

They earned their place in NHL history by winning the most challenging Cup ever. Tampa Bay did it by being almost unbeatable in overtime where they went 7-2 during the four rounds. It started in dramatic fashion with Brayden Point scoring in the fifth overtime to beat the Blue Jackets in a six and a half hour Game One marathon. He also Pointed them forward to the second round with another OT winner to avenge the first round loss by defeating the Jackets in five hard fought games. That set the tone.

The Lightning were too much for the Bruins by also working sudden death to beat Boston in five. It was the start of a great run for Conn Smythe winner Victor Hedman. The dominant Swedish defenseman scored 10 goals and was outstanding throughout the postseason. He edged Point in a close vote for Playoff MVP by getting one more first place vote than the top center, who scored five times in the six game series win over the Stars. Without Point, who’s to say they get past the scrappy Islanders? Their only two wins came when he didn’t play. In that Eastern Conference Final, Anthony Cirelli won the series in sudden death.

With clutch performances up and down the lineup that featured Hedman, Point, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, the Lightning were too much for the Stars, who did a great job just getting the Stanley Cup Final to a Game Six. There would be no more miracles like the one grizzled veteran Corey Perry provided to win Game Five in double overtime. No goals from Joe Pavelski, who was as clutch as ever during their run. Ditto for Stars captain Jamie Benn, who was great. The offense dried up for brilliant defenseman Miro Heiskanen in this hard fought series. John Klingberg still got shots through, but it was tougher to beat the game’s best goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Even though he looked a bit worn out earlier in the series, Anton Khudobin gave his team every opportunity to come back from 3-1 down. Neither of the goals in the Bolts’ 2-0 shutout to capture the Cup were his fault. Goals from Point (rebound) and former Devil Blake Coleman, who ironically grew up a Stars fan, were enough for Vasilevskiy to record his first career postseason shutout. He didn’t face much rubber until the third when the Stars finally made a push. At one point, shots were 24-9 in favor of the dominant Lightning, who didn’t let up.

For a while in the final period of the longest season due to the pandemic, it looked like Dallas had nothing left. But they were able to muster whatever energy they had left to force Vasilevskiy into some tough saves. None better than his flat out denial of a pointblank chance with his defense getting the rebound.

Enough cannot be said about that defense. Led by Hedman, who’s the league’s best defenseman for a reason, they were splendid. Ryan McDonagh shined in this Stanley Cup by playing the edgy physical style we used to see when he was a Ranger. He delivered some thunderous hits including a huge one on Heiskanen. The former Blueshirt captain reminded us of a time when he was a shutdown player. However, back then he had to be the top defenseman logging huge minutes in every situation including power play. On the Bolts, winning Stanley Cup coach Jon Cooper managed him perfectly by utilizing Mac at five-on-five and on the penalty kill. Areas he excels at.

The irony is he was paired a lot with former Ranger Kevin Shattenkirk. A pairing that didn’t quite work out here in NYC. However, they weren’t asked to carry the load. They were a second pair when Cooper had them together. Hedman mostly worked with Zach Bogosian, who went from being waived to becoming a critical player on the Cup champs. Not a bad way to finish out a season. He was back from injury for tonight’s big game. Both Bogosian and Luke Schenn sat out with injuries, forcing Cooper to go back to a more regular 12 forward, 6 defensemen alignment.

Perhaps the most overlooked player on this deserving champion is the gritty Erik Cernak. A young defenseman who played with lots of physicality by delivering big hits and crucial blocks throughout their run, the 23-year old from Slovakia was a unsung hero. How many times did he sacrifice his body for a key defensive play? Ask the Islanders about that.

Without Bogosian and Schenn for most of the Final, Cooper was able to swap in Jan Ruuta (played only five postseason games in the Stanley Cup) while leaning heavily on Hedman, McDonagh, Shattenkirk and Mikhail Sergachev. It helps when you boast a special player like Hedman, who was so flawless defensively that it was astonishing. Especially considering the minutes he logs and the offense the big defenseman supplies.

The role of the third line for the Lightning was enormous. Acquiring both Coleman and Barclay Goodrow were huge additions by GM Julien BriseBois. That added a necessary grit element to go with key checking pivot Yanni Gourde. The impact Gourde and Coleman had along with Cirelli was instrumental. They were in on the forecheck and killed penalties. The third line was really their second best line behind the big one of Point, Kucherov and Palat. Palat, who scored some damaging goals in the second round win over the Bruins, was one of three Bolts to hit double digits with 11 goals. The others were Point (14) and Hedman (10).

Kucherov, who set a playoff record for the most assists (27) by a right wing, was splendid. Unlike previous years, the former Hart winner took the physical punishment and dished it out. Maybe last year’s sweep at the hands of Columbus lit a fire under him. He was a different player. He finished with a playoff best 34 points (7-27-34) to edge Point (14-19-33). Hedman tallied 10 goals and 12 assists for 22 points while putting together the kind of postseason countryman Nick Lidstrom did.

While Point’s tally came on the power play off a follow up from Kucherov and Hedman in a dominant first period, Coleman’s came in transition. Catching the Stars in a line change during the second, Cedric Paquette and Maroon combined to set up Coleman for a huge insurance marker at 7:01 to go ahead 2-0. It was Coleman’s fifth. Maroon, who also beat the Stars with the Blues last year by winning a deciding seventh game in sudden death, joined Claude Lemieux and Cory Stillman as the only player to repeat on different rosters. Lemieux did it with the Devils and Avalanche while Stillman achieved it with the Lightning on their first ever Cup team (’04) and the Hurricanes (’06) two years later following the cancellation of 2004-05.

Even though they didn’t chip in as much offensively, the second line that was mostly Cirelli with Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn were dependable forwards for Cooper. They might not have hit the score sheet regularly, but the trio logged key shifts and ice time. It’s not like they didn’t get chances. Johnson had four goals and seven points, but his creativity was still noticeable. He easily could’ve had more. Cirelli is a hardworking two-way center, who is relied upon by Cooper on key draws and the penalty kill. He should continue to improve. Killorn had five goals and five helpers.

Without the brilliance of Vasilevskiy in net, they don’t win the franchise’s second Cup. He played every minute for them. It’s amazing to think he’s only 26. The big and talented Russian netminder who was taken ninth overall in the 2012 NHL Draft, posted great numbers with a 1.90 GAA and .927 save percentage. Nobody gets across faster to make those athletic kick saves better than the former Vezina winner. He should only get better.

Gary Bettman gave an outstanding speech during the trophy presentation. He really shined by emphasizing how significant an accomplishment it was for the NHL Tournament organizers, teams and personnel to successful pull this off. Before presenting Hedman with the Conn Smythe, he called everyone an MVP for the great jobs they did. Not one positive case in the bubble.

The presentation of the Stanley Cup was unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The Lightning decided to do it differently by all gathering around Bettman to take a nice group photo. It really was special. Then came the fireworks as the proud commissioner finally presented the best trophy in sports to a very excited Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. He might not have played much due to his injury. But he’ll always have that memorable moment where he reminded fans why he’s so talented by scoring that highlight reel goal on Khudobin in Game Three. Along with celebrating the Cup with teammates in an awesome ceremony, it was nice to see Stamkos enjoy the moment.

So too did McDonagh, who had to hustle back and dive in for the team photo with the Cup. Shattenkirk gave an interview with Pierre McGuire which was quite telling. He didn’t mince words about what went wrong with the Rangers. There’s clearly no love lost. I don’t hold any ill will. It wasn’t his fault. Sometimes, things don’t always go as planned. It sure worked out well for him as he chose wisely by picking the Lightning, who were a perfect fit as a redemption story.

Congrats to both McDonagh and Shattenkirk on winning the Cup. Congrats to Cooper, who’s the real life Gordon Bombay, going from a lawyer to a successful head coach that’s won at every level. He learned from last year as well.

It was a very long summer that ended in the autumn. The NHL should congratulate itself. Hockey won.

Nobody knows what lies ahead. The off-season, which already started with a few surprises, will now continue in full bloom. October promises to be very interesting. Strange too because there won’t be hockey. But buyouts, signings and trades along with a huge Draft.

As Kathryn Tappen said to end the NBCSN broadcast which was perfectly told by legendary Doc Emrick on the historic playoffs, we don’t know when we’ll see NHL hockey again. But there will be a Cup banner raising. Whether it’s with fans or without, they’ll be there regardless.

I congratulated our great friend Dan on his team winning the Cup. He is elated. Why not. It’s not every year your team wins. Enjoy the moment.

Thank you to the NHL for a fascinating summer. See you soon.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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