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Lightning lift Stanley Cup in capping NHL’s marathon season

(AP) — Defenseman Ryan McDonagh was preparing to answer one last question regarding the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup championship when teammates Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn crashed the room, putting an abrupt and celebratory end to the news conference.

“Who’s next? Next question,” Kucherov said, looking into the camera.

With McDonagh stopping in mid-sentence, Killorn stepped behind the podium and said, “We’re not staying here all night, man.”

The wait for the Lightning — and the NHL — was long enough after Tampa Bay clinched the Cup with a 2-0 win in Game 6 against Dallas on Monday night in Edmonton, Alberta.

The Lightning raised the Cup 363 days after the first puck was dropped on the 2019-20 season, and some 6 1/2 months after hockey was put on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We knew what we were capable of with our whole roster, and we were pretty thankful to get the opportunity to come back and play,” McDonagh said. “Right from Day 1, we were focused and dialed in on a mission. And now, we can say mission accomplished.”

The Lightning’s title, their second after winning in 2004, was historic.

In becoming the first team to win the Cup after the month of June, the Lightning also became the first to win 18 playoff games, including two in a preliminary round seeding series, as opposed to the standard 16. And they did so while spending 65 days in the NHL bubble, starting in Toronto before relocating to Edmonton for the conference finals.

“Obviously, we can go back and look at what’s going on in the world now,” said Maroon, who won the Cup last year with St. Louis. “I think a lot of us are going to sit back and talk about this one a lot, because this one was a special one, and a hard one to win.”

While the Lightning traveled home to prepare for a fan rally and boat parade along the Hillsborough River set for Wednesday, the NHL turns its attention to next week, when the two-day draft — to be conducted remotely — opens on Oct. 6, followed by the start of free agency three days later.

It remains unclear when the 2020-21 season will open, either in December or early January, though the plan is to squeeze in a full 82-game schedule.

For now, the Lightning can savor the moment and prepare to finally be reunited with their family and friends.

“It takes a lot to be in a bubble for 80 days or whatever long it was,” said playoff MVP Victor Hedman. “But it’s all worth it now.”

The experienced and deep Lightning made Stars coach Rick Bowness’ pre-series comments prescient. Bowness, a former Tampa Bay assistant, noted how the Lightning “weren’t quite ready to win” in 2015 in losing the final to Chicago in six games.

This year’s team proved far more battle-tested, with much of the same core still in place, and all too familiar with playoff setbacks. The Lightning lost Eastern Conference final appearances — both in Game 7 — in 2016 and 2018. Then there was the unshakable memory of last year, when Tampa Bay ran away with the regular-season title only to be swept by Columbus in the first round.

It was only fitting, McDonagh said, that Columbus was the Lightning’s first-round opponent this year. Tampa Bay not only won the series in five games, but showed perseverance in opening the series needing five overtimes to pull out a 3-2 win in the fourth-longest game in NHL history.

“I think that win, in itself, set us up for no matter what was going to be thrown at us, we were going to find a way,” McDonagh said.

They did it with captain Steven Stamkos limited to playing just two minutes and 47 seconds while missing the rest of the playoffs with a core muscle injury. And they overcame leading goal-scorer Brayden Point missing two games (both losses) with an undisclosed injury.

The Lightning never lost two straight, and enjoyed a few blowout victories, including 8-2 and 7-1 routs over Boston and the Islanders. More important, Tampa Bay was 12-3 in games decided by one goal.

General manager Julien BriseBois earned credit for adding grit and playoff experience. Maroon and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk were among the team’s offseason free-agent additions. BriseBois didn’t stop there, trading first-round draft picks to acquire Barclay Goodrow from San Jose and Blake Coleman from New Jersey in February.

The Lightning, who finished second in the Atlantic Division with a 43-21-6 record, capped a season in which they enjoyed a franchise-record 11-0 run from Jan. 29 to Feb. 17 following a 14-11 start.

Shattenkirk credited coach Jon Cooper for not over-reacting to the early stumbles.

“I think his patience was probably the best characteristic,” Shattenkirk said earlier this month. “He showed throughout the whole way in believing in our team and believing in the guys we had in the locker room. And it allowed us to see the results for ourselves.”

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