TAMPA, Fla. – The Rays are on the clock. That Game 1 wild-card series win over the Buffalo Blue Jays was nice enough for starters. But it wasn’t a world championship.
A world championship is what got off the plane Tuesday afternoon in Tampa, hoisting the Stanley Cup. A world championship is what will be on display today during a parade and at the football stadium. The very first 2020 COVID sports champion in America is what we’re talking about.
Lo and behold, it is the Lightning.
Yes, at long last, the Lightning.
The bubble boys are back from Edmonton and they brought the hardware with them. No more nasal swabs and isolation for coach Jon Cooper and the lads. No more hotel to rink, rink to hotel. After two months of practicing isolation, the Lightning are all alone atop planet hockey.
Captain Steven Stamkos came off the plane holding Stanley, which this club has seemingly chased forever, through all the letdowns and heartbreak, the near misses, and the complete misses.
No more of that.
The Lightning, the best hockey team in the world, played like it for two months, away from family, away from Tampa, away from everything but each other. They were tested every day, and not just for COVID. And now they will walk together forever.
Isn’t that the saying? It was coined by the late Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero. He wrote it on a dressing room chalkboard the morning the Flyers won the Stanley Cup in 1974.
Win tonight and we will walk together forever.
It might not have been the perfect setting. The Lightning were far from Amalie Arena, far from their fans, far from the bedlam you would normally hear as the Cup is lifted.
But you want to know something? I liked it. I liked that you could hear Lightning players scream like school kids, like they just won a game on the pond out back before they went for hot chocolate. It brought home the humanity of their accomplishment.
Yes, it was September, normally the time players are in training camp. Yes, it was the end of a season that was like no other and will never happen again.
But these were real screams of joy, real tears of happiness.
These were you boys, Tampa Bay, and they brought it home.
Five years ago, in Chicago, a young Lightning team lost 2-0 and watched the Chicago Blackhawks skate around the ice with the Cup. Their day would come.
It took its own sweet time, didn’t it?
They beat the Dallas Stars in Game 6, 2-0. Sound familiar?
It had been 531 days since the Lightning made their zombie exit in Columbus after being swept from the first round of the playoffs. The Lightning were losers, chokes, a laughingstock.
Now they are champions.
It was a long road, and it took every single one of them. It took everything they had. Never was that truer as they were mostly sealed off from family and other loved ones in the Canada bubble. Has there ever been a harder journey to the Cup?
“Sitting in your hotel room, there were some dark days there,” Lightning winger Pat Maroon said.
The Lightning had been accustomed to dark days as they failed again and again in Cup quests in recent seasons. They had some of the best players in the world, but what did it matter, or mean?
Well, they put an end to that. After they did, they sprayed each other with champagne and didn’t even wear goggles to keep the sting out of their eyes, like those pansies in other sports do. These are hockey guys. Stinging eyes? Just another upper-body injury.
Victor Hedman won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, but Brayden Point could have won it, or Nikita Kucherov, or Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning’s best players were their best players. And the other players stepped up too.
This was a team effort, top to bottom, bottom to top. After the Cup was won, the gorilla was off their backs. They had been carrying it since that night in Columbus, often quietly, but it drove them, always. They pushed through the doubters, the naysayers, not to mention the Bluejackets, Bruins, Islanders and Stars. They proved everyone wrong.
When did they know?
The very first game of these playoffs was a marathon. The Lightning outlasted Columbus in four overtimes, with Point scoring the winner. Lose that one and the winged monkeys take flight inside Lightning heads. They won that one. And they were on their way, together.
Or maybe it was the night captain Steve Stamkos, the longest-tenured Lightning player, returned to score a goal against Dallas. It lifted this whole franchise up. And they were on their, way together.
Or maybe it was something as simple as three Lightning players laying out to block Dallas shots in the closing minutes of the deciding game. Ryan McDonagh was in there, so was Mikhail Sergachev. I didn’t get the number of the third player, Does it matter? It could have been anyone. It could have been everyone.
The question now is whether the Lightning front office will be able to keep this team intact. The core will remain, which is a good thing. But some names and faces will be missing when next season rolls around.
That is for then. This is for now. The best hockey team in the world plays out of Tampa Bay. Their names will be inscribed on the Cup and in their hearts and minds. It was one long walk, filled with nasal swabs, hotel rooms, and a sense of isolation. But they had each other. And they played like it for two long months. Door kicked in at last, they played like who they are: Stanley Cup champions.
The Rays and Bucs are on the clock.
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