TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Lightning are back-to-back Stanley Cup champs -- and they did it in a nine-month span.
"This group, no matter what happens from here on out, this group is going to be etched in history forever, and that's pretty F'ing special," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "I'm so proud of the guys. You can't soak it in yet. It's so fresh. It's so new. You don't even realize what's going to happen. We won the Stanley Cup, and we still have the Stanley Cup. That's just amazing."
Tampa Bay defeated the Montreal Canadiens 1-0 to close out the series 4-1 on Wednesday at home, becoming the first team to repeat as champion since the 2016 and 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Conn Smythe Trophy and recorded his fifth straight shutout in a series-clinching game.
With the Game 5 win, the Lightning improved to 15-0 immediately following a loss over the past two postseasons, the longest such streak in NHL history. Defeating Montreal is the 15th series win for the Lightning since 2015. In that span, no other team has won more than nine series.
"COVID, going in the bubble for 60-plus days, starting the year with COVID, no fans, having a shortened season, basically, then bouncing back after we won the Cup two months later, then starting the season again with 56 games, and it's back-to-backs every other day, it takes a lot," Tampa Bay veteran forward Pat Maroon said. "To win the Stanley Cup, guys are banged up, guys are hurt."
Tampa Bay was without veteran forward Alex Killorn, who blocked a shot by Jeff Petry in Game 1. Killorn revealed Wednesday night that he had a broken fibula and underwent surgery last week to have a rod inserted into his leg.
"I tried for Game 4, but clearly it wasn't good enough. Then it got worse after trying it," Killorn said. "If it came down to it, I probably would have played the next game or Game 7, but the boys were good enough that didn't have to happen."
As Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman explained, "That says a whole lot about our team. People wanted to sacrifice whatever it took to be a back-to-back Stanley Cup winner. That's the confidence we had going into the playoffs."
Tampa Bay dominated the first period of Game 5, holding a 13-8 edge in shots and 16-8 edge in controlled entries, but it could not get a puck past Canadiens goalie Carey Price. However, Lightning rookie Ross Colton broke open the scoring 13:27 into the second period. Colton was set up on the goal by defenseman David Savard, the only other player on Tampa Bay's roster who had not won a Stanley Cup.
The Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars in September to win the Cup in the bubble in Edmonton, Alberta. The franchise's only other Cup title came in 2004.
Due to pandemic restrictions in Canada, the Lightning celebrated last year largely without family members allowed in attendance. Had Tampa Bay won in Game 4 on Monday -- becoming the first team to sweep the Stanley Cup Final in 23 years -- that would have been the case again. The Canadian government did not grant additional exemptions for family members to cross the border and skirt the federal 14-day quarantine, something the NHL had negotiated for teams during the previous two rounds.
Instead, as Tampa Mayor Jane Castor jokingly suggested earlier this week, by losing Game 4, the Lightning were able to clinch on home ice, celebrating in a packed arena and with loved ones.
"We had an opportunity last game in Montreal to win it, and we didn't, and then they get some life and come in here," Stamkos said. "But we just said, it's an opportunity. It's an opportunity to win in front of our fans, it's an opportunity to win in front of our family, and those two groups didn't get a chance to celebrate with us last year. And that was motivation."
The Cup also marked a personal three-peat for Maroon, who won with his hometown St. Louis Blues in 2019. No NHL player had won three straight Cups since 1983, when 15 New York Islanders wrapped up their fourth in a row. No player had won three straight Cups with two different teams since 1964.
"I was crying basically on the bench with 1:40 left," Maroon said. "I couldn't even throw my stuff off because it's just -- being a Stanley Cup champ three years in a row is pretty special. It takes a group, 25 men, and we did it. I'm going to reminisce about this when I retire with my son, but I'm going to soak it all in."
The Canadiens were heavy underdogs entering the Final and had the worst points percentage (.527) of any team to qualify for the 16-team playoff field. Montreal did not hold a lead at any point against Tampa Bay until Josh Anderson scored in the first period of Game 4 -- snapping a streak of 195 minutes, 39 seconds.
"The resilience that we showed -- just a good team to be a part of," Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher said. "As painful as this is right now, sometimes you need to feel this to call yourself the champion."
Lightning star Nikita Kucherov took an unprompted shot at Montreal in his postgame news conference, which he appeared at shirtless.
"I'm so happy. I didn't want to go back to Montreal," Kucherov said. "The fans in Montreal, come on. They acted like they won the Stanley Cup last game. Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? Their final was the last series, OK?"
Kucherov also was defensive about his goalie and good friend, Vasilevskiy: "If he played in a different market, he would win the Vezina every year."
The Lightning were expected to make significant roster changes after last year's Cup to stay salary-cap compliant. But Kucherov underwent hip surgery on Dec. 29 and was sidelined for the entire regular season, which allowed general manager Julien BriseBois to keep his roster largely intact. Kucherov returned for Game 1 of the first round and was sensational throughout the entire playoffs, leading all scorers with 32 points -- nine more than any other player.
"I don't know anyone who can miss the entire regular season, come back and do what he did," Tampa Bay forward Blake Coleman said. "He deserves all the credit."
The Lightning also put veteran Tyler Johnson -- who led them in scoring in their 2015 Stanley Cup Final run -- on waivers twice, and he went unclaimed each time. Johnson was one of Tampa Bay's key depth players in the 2021 run and scored twice in Game 3 of the Final.
Stamkos said twice during the postseason that the team openly addressed what the rest of the hockey world knows is coming: "This is realistically the last time we're going to have the chance to all play together."