Stanley Cup Wrap Up: Lightning Repeat, Kucherov trolls Canadiens’ fans, McDonagh dominant, Vasilevskiy wins Conn Smythe, Rangers sign Howden in preparation for Expansion Draft

The Tampa Bay Lightning pose for a team photo after repeating as Stanley Cup Champions. The most dominant team this century. Photo by Derek Felix courtesy NBC Sports

It’s already been three days since the Stanley Cup wrapped up. Indeed, Lightning struck twice with the dominant Bolts blanking the Canadiens 1-0 in Game Five to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions at home in front of a near capacity crowd. They got to celebrate this time in front of their fans and it was great to see.

After how the Habs were able to stay alive by winning Game Four on a Josh Anderson overtime winner over four minutes in from Cole Caufield to take it 3-2 at a raucous Bell Centre, the Lightning were intent on finishing them off. They didn’t want to go back to Montreal. Who could blame them. You never want to give a live underdog a chance to believe anything is possible. They made certain there would be no new team joining the 1942 Maple Leafs to rally from a 3-0 series deficit to win the Cup.

How did they do it? In similar fashion to how they responded against the Islanders in the only elimination game they faced in the 2021 NHL Playoffs. In that Game Seven, the relentless Lightning pressed the action and dominated the Islanders in puck possession and shots. The only goal came from Yanni Gourde shorthanded early in the second period on a perfect line change. The Bolts continued to swarm Semyon Varlamov and hardly faced much pressure in their end. It resulted in a fourth consecutive series clinching shutout for Andrei Vasilevskiy, who again won after losing a playoff game.

That theme repeated itself when Vasilevskiy only had to make 22 saves for his fifth shutout in a series clincher dating back to last year. A ridiculous statistic that’ll be hard to match. It shows just how potent the champion Lightning are. They went back-to-back for a big reason. The resilience of the players following losses showed true character. When you can finish off opponents by blanketing them to pitch 1-0 shutouts, it says a lot about what kind of team you are. One for the record books. This time, it was rookie Ross Colton who scored the game’s only goal by tipping in a David Savard feed past Carey Price. Ryan McDonagh set it up. He was dominant throughout the series and had such a good postseason that he finished fourth for the Conn Smythe that went to Vasilevskiy. The Bolts’ most valuable player. Without him, they’re not champs.

The unique aspect that made Tampa so good is that it wasn’t only about the skill guys. We know how great Nikita Kucherov was in leading in playoff scoring with 32 points (8-24-32). Ditto for center Brayden Point, who remained clutch like last year by pacing all scorers with 14 goals including nine straight games with a goal to just miss matching Reggie Leach’s playoff record. Vasilevskiy was locked in and proved he’s the best goalie in the sport. At just 26, he’s already won two Cups and a Vezina. Though to hear Kucherov tell it in a bizarre interview courtesy of Bud Light, Vasilevskiy was the better than the Vegas guy (Marc-Andre Fleury) and the guy in Winnipeg (Connor Hellebuyck). He wasn’t lying there. However, that’s voted on by general managers. It’s the second part of his interview while intoxicated that created fireworks.

An engaging personality, Kucherov did a lot of celebrating while on the ice, even raising his arms up to his ears as if he were Hulk Hogan. It was obvious he was enjoying himself. So too was Pat Maroon, who must be the good luck charm. He’s now won three Cups in a row, becoming the first player to do it since the Islanders in ’83. Maroon was so pumped, he circled around the ice near the boards and took selfies with joyous fans. It was classic.

Back to Kucherov. With his shirt off in the postgame interview at the table, he went after Montreal fans. He said that he really didn’t want to go back to Montreal. Then he referred to how their fans acted after they won a game. He didn’t hold back saying last series against Vegas was their Stanley Cup. This was priceless. Here you had a star player being brutally honest. Something we rarely see in hockey. This didn’t sit well with the passionate Canadiens’ fans, who went after Kucherov for his remarks. Here’s the thing. Not every fan overreacted to their team’s win. He was referencing fans who crossed the line outside. At the same time, let’s not forget this was their team’s first Stanley Cup appearance in 28 years. You have many new fans who never experienced the Montreal success that includes an NHL record 23 Stanley Cups. The good fans who got excited by the Game Four win don’t deserve that label. But Kucherov was drunk. It just came out.

Personally, I don’t see the big deal over what he said. It wasn’t what you’d get if Kucherov were sober. He had a little too much fun, even cursing while pondering how many questions he had to answer. I loved what he said about Vasilevskiy. It’s the truth. Anyone who thinks he’s not the Bolts’ most important player is lost. He started every playoff game the past two years to join Ken Dryden, who’s the last to do it. Imagine if Curtis McElhinney had to start a game. He’s the luckiest backup ever. But he got to skate the Cup as did many younger Lightning prospects who they included in the celebration. That kind of memorable experience will be something they won’t forget. With a few Bolts on the way out, that’ll serve as motivation.

Even funnier is that Kucherov signed with Bud Light to drink their beer out of the Stanley Cup. I’m not kidding. Twitter can be a bit chaotic, but occasionally you find the humor in it. I doubt anyone up North will be drinking Bud Light. They’re still riled up over Kucherov. However, look at the bright side. He’s now Public Enemy number one. A new rivalry exists. Games between the Habs and Bolts when they return to the same division will be intense. It’ll be worth watching. Will there be any carryover? It should be interesting.

Regarding the Canadiens, who played well in two of the five games, they have nothing to be ashamed of. Sure. The loss hurts. Whenever you get that far and lose, it isn’t easy to take. They made a great run and should be proud of what they accomplished. Many of us had them dead and buried when they fell behind 3-1 to the Maple Leafs. But they showed a lot of heart coming back to pull it out and again break Toronto hearts. Then swept Winnipeg. Who had the Habs over the Golden Knights? They stifled Mark Stone and held Max Pacioretty to one goal while getting outstanding goaltending from Price to win in six. Artturi Lehkonen played the overtime hero to win Game Six as Bell Centre celebrated along with so many fans going crazy outside. It was a great moment.

No matter what you think about how the Stanley Cup Final turned out, the Lightning still had to earn it by playing their very best game. They say the fourth game (or in this case the 16th) is the hardest to get. They proved they could win any type of game. Whether it be high scoring and unpredictable like the tough challenge they got from the Panthers in the first round, or coming from behind to stun the Hurricanes in a pivotal Game Four before closing the door, these Bolts expertly coached by Jon Cooper never cracked. They could’ve against the resilient Islanders after blowing Game Six and losing on a bad Blake Coleman turnover in overtime. That’s not who they were. They had tremendous character and short memories. The championship pedigree showed up. That’s why they joined the Penguins (’16 and ’17) as the only teams to go back-to-back this century. In my view, they’re the best champion since the powerful Red Wings repeated in ’97 and ’98. The biggest difference is they didn’t lose a single game against the Flyers or Capitals. But Tampa went 8-2 versus Dallas and Montreal.

I also want to single out Cooper’s game management. Without key cog Alex Killorn, he made a wise decision by sticking Colton on the second line and moving Tyler Johnson back to the fourth line. Every move he made worked. Ironic how Johnson did in the Habs earlier in the series when moved up and then it was Colton getting the Cup clincher by getting position on Joel Edmundson to steer in Savard’s feed. The role players excelled. Coleman redeemed himself by scoring clutch goals including the backbreaking game-winner with under two seconds left in the second period of Game Two. Barclay Goodrow assisted on it and also played his checking role well. He will leave as will Coleman due to the Lightning cap situation. Both will get paid. They’re each gritty players who help winners become successful. Johnson will also wind up elsewhere due to his $5 million price tag. He definitely is capable of playing a bigger role elsewhere. Savard will also depart for greener pastures.

Ryan McDonagh is interviewed by NBC reporter Pierre McGuire after winning his second consecutive Stanley Cup. The former Ranger captain made a huge difference throughout the 2021 Playoffs. Photo by Derek Felix

It was nice to hear Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher single out the performance of McDonagh. They praised the consistent defensive work from the former Ranger captain. He truly was at his best paired with underrated physical D Erik Cernak. They were a shutdown tandem, who provided superb work at five-on-five and on the penalty kill. McDonagh also made some good pinches to create offense like he did in NYC. How about that pass to set up a goal in Game Four. He also made the key block and long outlet that led directly to the Gourde shorthanded goal that finished off the Isles. Mac Truck was in beast mode all playoffs. He finished with eight assists and a playoff best plus-18. Good for him winning two Cups. He must think he died and gone to Heaven. From the ridiculous criticism that he wasn’t a good leader as a Ranger, he got moved to a better team where he could play behind Victor Hedman on the second pair. That meant not having to worry about running the power play or carrying the burden like he did on Broadway. McDonagh should send Jeff Gorton a postcard.

You can’t leave out the tremendous leadership from captain Steven Stamkos. Last year was tough for him. He was hurt almost the entire postseason, but had a memorable Stanley Cup moment by scoring a great goal off the rush with a rocket in his only game against the Stars. This time, he was able to participate by finishing with 18 points (8-10-18) while playing on the second line with Cirelli and Killorn before he missed the final four games due to a broken fibula. Astonishingly, he hoped to return and play after getting metal rod inserted during surgery last week. An injury that’ll take three to four weeks for him to do normal things. It didn’t stop him from being on the ice for the celebration and skating the Cup. What a warrior.

Ondrej Palat is often overlooked on this team. A good two-way player who complements Point and Kucherov well, he remains a key part of the consecutive championships. A gritty forward who always battles hard to keep plays alive on the back check, the speedy Palat makes things happen. He can play both power play and penalty kill and is an underrated passer. He doesn’t get the ink of his linemates, but is a steady influence. He was sixth in team scoring with 13 points (5-8-13) and a plus-eight. He was a factor producing a goal and three assists in the Final. As much as Point and Kucherov are discussed for where they were selected, Palat went in the seventh round of the 2011 NHL Draft. Can you say steal?

Credit the Lightning scouting staff for doing an outstanding job finding such superb players. Imagine passing on Kucherov, who wound up going in the second round of the 2011 Draft number 58. He has a Hart Trophy and led the postseason in scoring during consecutive Stanley Cup championships. This is a special player who’s totaled 547 points in 515 games and put up 127 points in 113 playoff games. He reminded us why he’s in the conversation as one of the game’s best players. Point was stolen in the third round in the 2014 Draft 79th overall. His career numbers in the playoffs are over a point-per-game with an impressive 36 goals and 37 assists for 73 total points in 67 games. A complete first line pivot, who plays a 200-foot game. His regular season marks are proof. He has 310 points (139-171-310) with a plus-75 rating in 351 games. Only 25, he’ll continue to get better.

When the Lightning can count on virtually everyone to contribute including Jan Ruuta (who didn’t work out in Chicago), who paired up with the towering force in Hedman (2-16-18), it says everything. They’re the best T-E-A-M. Even Luke Schenn stepped in for Cernak against the Islanders and Mathieu Joseph filled in admirably on the fourth line when Killorn went down. Cooper moved Colton up and Joseph played with Johnson and the charismatic Maroon. Everyone was part of it.

The Lightning will hold a boat parade on Monday in Tampa. They’ve done it before. It’s definitely unique. But probably cool. Especially cruising with the Cup around the ocean. A bit different from most championship celebrations that include long parade routes. As Cooper noted in an on ice interview, he knows they won’t be the same team next time. But noted how extremely focused they were on winning the Cup for a second consecutive time. He wouldn’t allow anyone to think about it or what lied ahead. The right mentality. A coach with a law degree who got involved coaching high school hockey, he went from being a lawyer to a successful coach who’s won at every level. It’s a pretty good story.

It’s hard to believe there’s no more hockey for another three months. It was a strange feeling with there not being a game on Friday night. However, with the first buyout window here, there certainly will be a flurry of activity in what promises to be an interesting off-season that includes the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft prior to the NHL Draft. There’s sure to be a lot of focus on who GM Ron Francis selects from each team along with trades like we saw Vegas make to their advantage. Each team have tough decisions coming up on who they’ll protect. Then, you have the Draft, free agency and potential trades with Vladimir Tarasenko requesting out of St. Louis. Where will he wind up?

For the Rangers, they’ll have their own decisions to make on who to protect. With the team re-signing Brett Howden to a one-year dehuial worth $885,000. With him signed for a year, will he be left unprotected? You have to think Kevin Rooney and either Howden, Julien Gauthier or Colin Blackwell are the candidates. Personally, I’d like to keep Gauthier due to his combination of size, speed and strength. I believe a coach like Gerard Gallant can get more out of him. If not, then maybe they decide it’s worth retaining Blackwell, who proved he could score goals and win battles while being moved around the lineup.

There is the upcoming restricted free agency of key scorer Pavel Buchnevich. They can decide to keep him past next summer when he could become unrestricted. He’s got some good years ahead. Would a contract around $5.25 million on average over say four to five years get it done? It all depends what’s in new Team President and GM Chris Drury’s plans. What if Matthew Tkachuk really becomes available? With the Rangers lacking that kind of physical forward who can score and drive opponents nuts, they’d have to consider it. But who would be in such a deal? I’m not going to speculate. If Tkachuk switches teams, he’ll help someone.

What about locking up Norris winner Adam Fox? A year away from restricted status, they can extend him this summer which means a long-term contract wouldn’t kick in until ’22-23. It would be wise to get it done now. Igor Shesterkin, Filip Chytil and Libor Hajek are also RFA’s. So is Gauthier. Do they re-sign him for a similar year like Howden to make him more attractive for Seattle? It’s all about being calculated.

What about Brendan Smith? He was the consummate teammate. A good locker room leader who brought a strong work ethic and did a solid job. Does he want to stay? If not, who could fill that role? It can’t just fall on kids Zac Jones and Nils Lundkvist. They need a veteran defenseman who can play occasionally or perhaps more if Jones and Lundkvist aren’t ready. Nothing should be assumed.

The lack of grit is an area Drury has spoken about addressing. He noticed the physicality during the postseason. It’s that tenacious style that helps teams be successful. Circle Barclay Goodrow as a free agent checking pivot who might be a good fit. The sheer hustle, grit and determination he plays with makes him a coveted player around the league. Casey Cizikas is similar, but his loyalty is with the Islanders. I have to believe he’ll find a way to stay. They don’t have a great cap situation. There’s also Joel Armia, who has the size and speed to make a difference if he isn’t brought back by Montreal. He can score the garbage goals and is a valuable checking forward who’s a strong penalty killer. We can further examine who’s available at a later date.

There’s plenty of time to see what develops. We know the buyout is coming for Tony DeAngelo. A skilled offensive defenseman who will not make anywhere close to what he did this past year. I believe in second chances. I also think John Davidson and Jeff Gorton did him wrong due to David Quinn. Sometimes, stuff happens in the heat of the moment. Players do get into scuffles sometimes. It was unfortunate how it ended after his blowup with Alex Georgiev. A likable backup goalie who should remain in the Big Apple to play behind Shesterkin. I hope he apologized to Georgiev. He never stopped throwing support to his former teammates including congratulating Fox on his Norris win via Instagram. You wonder what’s going to be with DeAngelo, who proved in ’19-20 he could be a big contributor at five-on-five and on the power play. Will a team give him an opportunity to prove himself? There can’t be anymore issues.

These are all stories to follow in the coming weeks. Now that I’ve set it up, it’s time to kick back and make a smoothie while enjoying the end of Wimbledon and tomorrow’s men’s final between Matteo Berrettini and heavy favorite Novak Djokovic along with the big European Championship between Italy and England at Wembley Stadium. Go Italy!

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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