Tucked away in their heavily-sanitized bubble, away from family and friends, the Tampa Bay Lightning slogged through an intense, condensed two-month playoff hockey schedule to lay claim to what everyone hopes will be the first and only COVID Cup.
The Lightning won the second Stanley Cup in their history last night (for those counting, their 1992 expansion cousins in Ottawa are still waiting for their first), beating the Western Champion Dallas Stars in six games with a 2-0 win. Dallas was pesky, and hung around in every game, but it was clear from the outset that Tampa was the superior team.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s done a substantial amount of his summer goalie training in Ottawa over the years, picked the perfect time for his first career playoff shutout. He had to at least be in the discussion for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
But the award rightly went to Victor Hedman, who was a beast all summer, becoming only the third defenceman in NHL history to score 10 goals or more in the Stanley Cup playoffs (Paul Coffey and Brian Leetch are the only others).
While he has so much to be proud of, it had to be a very difficult evening for former Ottawa Senators head coach Rick Bowness. One could argue the Dallas coach was scapegoated by Tampa last spring after their shocking first-round playoff loss to Columbus. Bowness was fired by the Lightning after 5 years on as an assistant coach, working primarily with the defence.
That included Hedman, who shared a long, appreciative embrace with his mentor in the handshake line. Bowness will go on record as the losing coach in the final, but every player in that Tampa locker room would probably say that “Bones” had a hand in their triumph.
It’s almost a crime that Dallas has yet to reward Bowness by dropping his label of interim coach. One would hope that move is on the way, merely an off-season formality.
The trophy ceremony last night was all kinds of different. The rink is usually filled with disappointed losing fans or loud, screaming winners. And, no matter what, you always have fans booing Commissioner Gary Bettman while he tries to make a speech. But, with both teams being thousands of kilometres away from their home rinks, the only authentic sound came from the players themselves. The Lightning gathered around Bettman and the Cup, posed for a team photo, then screamed, “Yeahhhhh!” as the commissioner handed off hockey’s holy grail to Tampa captain Steven Stamkos.
And with that, the most bizarre NHL season ever was over.
The final two teams now emerge from the NHL’s bubble, their self-imposed quarantine, anxious to see their family and friends, eager to exhale and enjoy some downtime. What we don’t know is how much downtime there will be. The Ottawa Senators are already six and a half months into their off-season with no definitive end in sight – maybe December, possibly January?
Much of that depends on the behaviour of our population and the whims of a virus. In the meantime, the 2019-20 NHL season goes straight into the books as one we’ll never forget.
By Steve Warne