It's been an incredibly strange road for this Tampa Bay Lightning core, but they finally reached the pinnacle of hockey on Monday night. And, sure, it came under possibly the strangest possible conditions -- the "COVID Cup" raised inside the NHL's bubble in Edmonton -- but make no mistake about it: The 2020 Lightning are no fluke, and there's no asterisk needed to accompany their victory.
Few people have questioned whether the Lightning are good enough to win the Cup. Not this year, not last year, and not the year before that. Very few were surprised to see them make the Stanley Cup Final this year, and it wasn't entirely stunning that they convincingly dispatched an inferior Stars team in six games, either. The talent on this roster is undeniable. Much like the Capitals a few years ago, this Tampa Bay team became a league punching bag because they had the talent and nothing to show for it. Despite plenty of regular season success, the Lightning were never able to seal the deal -- until Monday night. Now, the Bolts have emphatically shed that "postseason chokers" narrative just like the Caps did in 2018.
That is, of course, unless you're one of those people that insists this Cup win is, and always would be, stained by the mess that is 2020. Ever since the NHL announced its return to play plan over the summer, there have been questions as to how legitimate a Cup win would be: A four-month break between meaningful games? An expanded playoff format? A play-in qualifier and seeding based on a three-game round robin? No fans? No home ice?
All of it made for an unprecedented, slightly unfamiliar Stanley Cup Playoffs. But all 24 teams that entered the restart did so with an even playing field and the ones that made a deep run still had to navigate the brutal, grueling grind of postseason hockey. Considering the circumstances, one might be able to argue that making and enduring a deep run in these playoffs was even more challenging than in a normal year. The mental toughness and focus required to withstand the solitude of the bubble is an added wrinkle to the mix.
And at the conclusion of it all, who was more impressive and deserving than the Tampa Bay Lightning?
The answer: Nobody, and that shouldn't come as a huge shock.
Tampa was plagued by inconsistency and seemed to be significant underachievers at many points during the regular season, but they were also elite at points, too. They had a two-month stretch from December to February in which they went 23-2-1, reminding us of the unstoppable force that the were during the regular season in 2018-2019. And we all know how just how much good that dominance did them during last year's playoffs, when they were swept in the first round by the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets. But it's hard not to look back on that embarrassing collapse with the benefit of hindsight and say that it helped Tampa get to the peak this postseason.
Not only did the Lightning come into this season will all the pieces you look for in a legitimate Stanley Cup contender -- elite top-end scoring talent (Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos) a solid defensive group headlined by shutdown workhorse pillar (Victor Hedman), as well as good goaltending and special teams -- but the sour taste of last year's collapse gave the front office an extra push to be aggressive as they looked to capitalize on their current window.
While they were the hottest team in the league at this year's trade deadline, they didn't rest of their laurels. They recognized they still had plenty to prove, and they went out and had a game-changing trade deadline, acquiring Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow -- arguably paying above market value for both. It was the kind of gamble that can look a little if it doesn't pay off -- Tampa surrendered two first-round picks and one of their top prospects (Nolan Foote) in order to bring those two players in -- but it paid off in the biggest possible way.
Coleman, Goodrow and Yanni Gourde comprised Tampa's checking line for most of the playoffs and they were a nightmare for opponents. Not only did they eat up minutes against top competition, often shutting them down while opening up better matchups for Tampa's own top unit, they also produced offensively. With Gourde on the ice at 5v5 in these playoffs, Tampa outscored opponents 18-8.
And the aforementioned top line? Just a complete powerhouse in these playoffs. Kucherov had 34 points (seven goals, 27 assists) in 25 games. Point had 14 goals and 19 assists in 23 games. Palat added 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in 25 games.
The dominant play of the Lightning becomes even more impressive and eye-opening when you remember that Stamkos played just 2:47 throughout the entire postseason run. Insane.
Not only did the Lightning have the most complete team this postseason, they also continuously proved that they could beat teams in whatever way they needed to. If things opened up, they were more than capable of pouring it on and winning in a shootout. But they were also capable of grinding out wins against tough, physical defensive teams. However they needed to win, they could be surgical and relentless.
It's not strange that the Lightning won the Cup, it's just strange that it took this long and it happened under such unique circumstances. But those circumstances were merely a footnote, not a contributor. And as for the timing, it might make this title even more special. Tampa becomes the first team to win the Stanley Cup after getting swept as a one-seed in the first round the previous year.
In a Stanley Cup tournament that was far from ordinary, we can find some comfort and normalcy in this: A bizarre season has (finally) come to close with the best team in the NHL taking home the Cup.