More than six months after the coronavirus brought their regular season to a grinding halt, and two months after the National Hockey League’s (NHL) return to play tournament, the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted the Stanley Cup on Sept. 28, concluding one of the strangest paths to glory in the hockey world. The Lighting beat the Dallas Stars 2-0 to take Game 6 and win the best-of-seven series four games to two.
After Covid-19 derailed the 2020 season, the NHL was determined to return to play, attempting to avoid a third season without awarding a Stanley Cup (in 1919, the Spanish flu stopped the final, and in 2005 a labor lockout canceled the entire season). The NHL decided their best shot to bring back hockey in a coronavirus world was to avoid the United States altogether, holding the remainder of the season in Canada.
The season returned with a 24 team playoff format. The 12 Eastern Conference teams played in Toronto and the 12 Western teams played in Edmonton. The preliminary round featured 52 games over nine days before a 16 team playoff, ultimately leading to a final four in Edmonton. All games were held without fans. Heading into the Stanley Cup final, the Lighting were the second seed and slight favorites over the third-seeded Stars. The two teams played six games, two of which went to overtime and one of which stretched into double overtime. Nineteen players combined for 33 goals, and as is so often the case in hockey, in the end a great performance by a goalkeeper made the difference. The Lightning goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, shut out the Stars in Game 6 with an impressive 22 saves.
This Stanley Cup saw multiple historic moments inside the Canadian bubbles. Stars’ defenseman Joel Hanley scored his first career goal with a high blocker side shot from between the circles to open the scoring in the Stanley Cup final. He became the first defenseman to score his first NHL goal in the Stanley Cup Final since Jim Paek in 1991. His teammate, Joe Pavelski, scored a game tying goal in Game 5, his thirteenth of the 2020 postseason and 61st all time postseason goal, the most for a U.S. born player in NHL history. Pavelski also became the fourth player 36 or older to score at least 10 goals in a postseason (Maurice Richard scored 11 in 1958 at 36, Wayne Gretzky scored 10 in 1997 at 36 and Brett Hull scored 10 in 2002 at 37).
On the Lightning’s side, winger Nikita Kucherov solidified himself as the third player in history to have at least 27 assists in one postseason and lead the league in assists and points in the playoffs. The Lightning’s Pat Marron became the third player since the NHL expansion to win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons with different teams, as he won with the St. Louis Blues last year.
While defenseman Victor Hedman won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman presented the Stanley Cup to Lighting captain Steven Stamkos. Declaring the victory “the ultimate team effort,” Bettman brought every player, coach and member of the Tampa Bay staff in Edmonton around the trophy and proclaimed, “this Stanley Cup run will go down in the record books as perhaps the hardest run of all time.” In Game 3, Stamkos made an emotional return to the ice after suffering an injury while rehabbing from hernia surgery in March, scoring on his first shot and playing for 2:47 before having to come out and miss the rest of the finals. While he was not on the ice for long, Stamkos has been a consistent leader for the Lightning and made a clear impact from the bench throughout the season.
In an ending fit for 2020, Lightning players facetimed family and friends to celebrate while skating victoriously around the ice with the 34.5 pound Stanley Cup. Hockey fans will not have to wait long for more action, as the 2021 season is scheduled to start on Dec. 1, 2020. As for now, all eyes are on this week’s upcoming draft with the future of hockey moving faster than a bolt of lightning.