Steven Stamkos has always had impeccable timing and precision on the ice, able to slip past opposing defensemen and rip the puck into closing slivers of daylight. It’s what he’s done since he was drafted first in 2008, and it’s what he did in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final a week ago. That night, he returned to competition for the first time since getting injured back in March; promptly scored to put the Lightning up 2-0 over the Dallas Stars; and then was even more promptly re-injured, never to suit up again in the series.
Well, sort of. On Monday night, Stamkos stood in the Tampa Bay locker room inside the NHL’s Edmonton playoff bubble, looking at his equipment and calculating when he ought to put it on. It was late in the third period of Game 6, and out on the rink the Lightning were nursing a 2-0 lead that would, if it held, give the franchise its first title since 2004. For Stamkos, deciding when to don his skates and jersey—the better to leap and bound down the hallway and out onto the ice to celebrate with the boys—was a far more nerve-racking needle to thread than any NHL shot attempt he’d ever taken.
The minutes ticked down slowly. Get dressed too early, he explained to the media after the game, and he’d surely “jinx the team.” Wait too long, and he’d run the risk of missing out on the moment he’d been imagining for pretty much his whole life. Well, again, sort of.
This was an NHL season and a Stanley Cup playoffs that no one could have actually imagined—one held in a two-month-long quarantine bubble following a five-month-long layoff in the midst of a who-knows-how-long global pandemic. In a sport that relishes tradition, there was little routine to be found this year: no team flights, no road trips, no sleeping off a frustrating loss in one’s own bed back home.
There were no fans filling the stadium with the best chant in hockey—we want the Cup—and no ceremonial Gary Bettman Bronx cheer on Monday night. There was no adorable procession of hockey babies, with their industrial-strength earmuffs dwarfing their bewildered noggins, having their diapered butts dunked in the big silver trophy for an iconic family pic. But there was also blessed little trace of something that had, over the years, become an increasingly uncomfortable annual routine of its own: Tampa Bay Lightning playoff disappointment.
In 2015, the Lightning lost in the Cup final to Chicago. In the three seasons that followed, the team missed the postseason once and fell in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final twice. Last year, on the heels of one of the most electric regular seasons in NHL history, the Lightning were swept in the first round of the playoffs. This past Saturday night, when the Stars scored in double overtime in Game 5 to extend the series at least another game, it was hard not to wonder, just for a second, if it might all wind up happening again. Instead, like so much else this postseason, things went differently this time.
When the clock finally struck zero on Monday and Tampa Bay got to celebrate its long-time-coming championship, it was the first time since 1977 that a team clinched the Cup without its captain in the lineup. And yet there Stamkos was anyway, on the ice, fully present. (He decided to gear up with about three minutes to play, right around the time the Stars were botching a pivotal power play that represented their last, best chance to get back into the game.) He grinned so wide that his eyes looked like slits. He hugged Victor Hedman, his teammate for the past decade and the postseason’s MVP, and “told him I loved him 100 times.” Like the rest of the Lightning, Stamkos wasn’t so much yelling or screaming as he was straight-up squealing with glee. It was the sound of joy, and the sound of immense relief.
“It hasn’t been easy, but it’s all worth it now,” said Hedman after the game. “We’re Stanley Cup champs, and we’re going to be Stanley Cup champs forever.” He said this as the Conn Smythe Trophy—which the 29-year-old defenseman earned on the strength of his 10 playoff goals and reliably exceptional defensive play—sat on the table next to him. “This is not my trophy,” he said. “This is everyone’s trophy. You could make the case for every single guy on this team. I’m obviously super proud to get the award, but the big, silver thing is the one we’re after. We’re going to take this to our grave.” His future grandchildren, he said, would be able to see his name on the Cup one day.
Hedman wasn’t being falsely modest about the Conn Smythe. It could have easily gone to Brayden Point, who scored 33 points in 23 playoff games, or to Point’s linemate Nikita Kucherov, whose gentle nudge of a pass was what facilitated Point’s Game 6 goal and was one of Kucherov’s NHL-high 27 postseason assists. On the other end of the ice, Ryan McDonagh patrolled the blue line with veteran stewardship, while goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy gave the Lightning a chance to win every game they played. And that list doesn’t even begin to address the contributions of players like defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who was acquired in a trade before this season and whose overtime goal won Game 4, or the pesty Yanni Gourde.
Even though Tampa Bay scored only two goals in Game 6 to clinch the championship, those scores came from two players who highlight the team’s trajectory and recent history. Point’s goal was one more feather in the cap of a player who has been part of one of hockey’s most prolific and consistent offensive lines. Blake Coleman, meanwhile, was one of GM Julien BriseBois’s trade deadline acquisitions, an “Energizer Bunny” of an addition that was more sensible than splashy and sought to address some of the team’s physical vulnerabilities.
For all the moves BriseBois made to get here, though, perhaps the boldest was the one he didn’t make. After last year’s playoff bust and a mediocre beginning to the 2019-20 season, BriseBois kept a steady hand. Many GMs in similar positions would have fired the head coach as a quick shake-up, but instead BriseBois reiterated his confidence in Jon Cooper, with whom he has worked since the two men were at the helm of a championship-winning minor league hockey team a decade ago.
In recent years, the Stanley Cup has been won by franchises that felt like they might be nearing a crossroads after a long and arduous journey, but that kept trudging along anyway: the Washington Capitals in 2018, the St. Louis Blues last season. Now you can add the Lightning to that list.
“We went from the outhouse to the penthouse,” Cooper said. The whole Cup experience may have been truly odd and often unpleasant—in one press conference last week, Cooper rattled off a distressing list of life events, ranging from birthdays to anniversaries to first-days-of-swim-team-practice, that he had missed since arriving in the bubble—but it was also a rare chance for teams to really focus inward. Of course, that’s easy to say when you exit with a Cup, rather than that old grim runner-up prize of “experience.”
Oh man, this Jamie Benn interview. pic.twitter.com/b7HosvIKkm— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) September 29, 2020
Meanwhile in the Dallas Stars Zoom interview room on Monday night, the exhausted players looked vacant and miserable. “It definitely sucked,” said Tyler Seguin, who was snakebitten throughout the final and remained so at a most inopportune time. “It sucks,” said captain Jamie Benn, some of the only words he could manage to speak in his devastated postgame press conference. In contrast to the victorious Hedman, who had said that he had “so many emotions at the same time, it’s hard to describe,” Stars goalie Anton Khudobin described quite the opposite: “There’s no feelings right now. Just empty.”
Dallas head coach Rick Bowness, a former Tampa Bay assistant who also was an assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks when they lost the Cup in seven games in 2011, tried hard to engage reporters’ good wishes and small jokes, but he could only smile weakly and say that he got as much out of his injured squad as was possible. It just wasn’t enough. All in all, the Stars sounded a lot like the Tampa Bay Lightning had in 2015, when they became a team that lost the Cup.
Years and years before Stamkos would stand in the Lightning locker room up in Edmonton, gazing at his gear as the clock ticked down on Game 6 and contemplating the enormity of the moment, Cooper had walked into the Lightning locker room down in Tampa Bay and felt quite the same way.
“The one holy shit moment,” Cooper said in the fall of 2013, reminiscing on being named Lightning head coach a few months earlier, “wasn’t flying in, and it wasn’t doing the press conference, and it wasn’t seeing or watching the game. It was at about quarter to 11 at night, when I walked into that room to the silence of 24 players and the entire staff, and everybody was waiting to hear what I had to say. That was the one moment where if you could just stop it in time you’d go, Ooh, wow, I wonder what everyone’s thinking right now.”
That was many triple-fist-pumps and heartbreaks ago, before a hockey-lifetime’s worth of overtime losses and blowout wins and hot seats and hardware and what-might-have-been young guys and old habits dying hard. “I truly believe,” Cooper told reporters on Monday, “it was the heartbreak we suffered that brought us here today.” He showed off a University of Virginia basketball hat that had reminded him and the team of the potential for a comeback: After the Cavaliers were knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the first round in 2018, becoming the first no. 1 seed to lose to a no. 16, they came back the following season to win it all. That the core of the Tampa Bay organization—from BriseBois and Cooper to Stamkos and Hedman—managed to ride all of those waves, from peak to trough and back again, is its own lovely story, one that ultimately deserved its strange and satisfying resolution.
Not to suggest that much of anything is over just yet. (Next up: a boat parade, followed by the inevitable story line of Tampa Bay wanting to win another Cup in its own building, in front of its people.) On Monday night, as Cooper sat on the interview stage flanked by six smiley, rowdy members of the Lightning coaching staff, a reporter asked him how he’d put the franchise’s narrative in his own words. “The same way I feel about Todd Richards’s handlebars,” Cooper said, nodding toward his mustachioed assistant coach. “Awesome.”
“Epic,” another coach suggested. “Glorious,” said someone else. “They’ll be gone tomorrow,” Richards insisted of his whiskers. “No they won’t!” several guys yelled in unison, with the buoyant certainty of dudes drinking not-Gatorade from green Gatorade cups. And they were right, because they won’t. That’s the beauty and the reward of winning the Cup: that it will all still be there tomorrow, and forever, even after everyone goes home to live their lives, even after everyone showers and shaves and begins to forget. Bubbles pop, but so do champagne corks. An asterisk is shaped the same way as a firework in the sky.