It was almost as if it was scripted.
With the Tampa Bay Lightning trying to clinch the Stanley Cup on their home ice Wednesday night in Game 5 of the Final after being unable to celebrate with fans, friends or family one year prior in the bubble. The only two players on the ice who were not in the bubble made sure the Bolts would get that celebration.
Tampa Bay's David Savard slid a pass to Ross Colton in the crease. Colton beat Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price to give the home team a 1-0 lead in the second period.
It might not seem like much, but a 1-goal margin is more than enough for the Lightning and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP.
"You knew after that first goal that Vasy was going to shut the door," Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said.
Just ask the New York Islanders, who lost 1-0 in Game 7 of the semifinal round. This team is strong enough to make it stand up and the Habs were gassed.
The Cup was presented. Stamkos lifted it as a packed Amalie Arena crowd roared.
"We just went back-to-back," forward Patrick Maroon said. "That's (expletive) amazing."
Amazing doesn't begin to describe this Tampa Bay team. The term historically great might be more applicable.
They play a suffocating brand of hockey and they can win in a variety of ways. They didn't use their vaunted power play, they didn't get a hat trick from a star, but Vasilevskiy, pitched a shutout — his fifth straight in a series clinching game — and two role players came up big when it mattered the most.
Tampa Bay has long been the best team in the salary cap era but didn't have much to show for it until last year. They passed the eye test, they stifled their opponents in the regular season, won the President's Trophy in 2019 and they regularly went deep into the postseason, even making it to the Cup Final in 2015 and going to the Eastern Conference Final in 2016 and 2018.
Two years ago, they were the most loaded team in hockey but they were embarrassingly swept out of the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
So maybe that was the key for this Bolts team, that is largely homegrown, has stayed mostly intact throughout the last five seasons and has been led by the same coach: They had to learn to handle failure before they could learn to handle prosperity.
What the Lightning have done well is mining talents outside of the first round and working the trade market for undervalued talents. It's a very Moneyball type of approach, but with the money. They are $18 million over the salary cap, after all.
Brayden Point and Alex Killorn were third-round picks in their respective draft years. Ondrej Palat was a seventh-round pick. Yanni Gourde was undrafted, as was his linemate Barclay Goodrow, who was acquired ahead of the 2020 trade deadline. Blake Coleman came over at the deadline from the New Jersey Devils. At the time, New Jersey general manager Tom Fitzgerald said he couldn't have guessed that Coleman would turn into a power forward who averages 20 goals a season, but Coleman has been an impactful player on two straight Cup teams.
Even Nikita Kucherov, who is only the third player in NHL history to post 30 or more points in back-to-back postseasons (Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemeuix are the other two), was drafted in the second round.
The team tanked for Stamkos and drafted him first overall in 2008. A year later, the club selected defenseman Victor Hedman second overall. In 2012 they drafted Vasilevskiy in the first round. They developed their core talent and convinced Stamkos to stick around for a while.
The player that set up the Colton goal was defenseman Ryan McDonagh, arguably the best Tampa Bay skater in the Final round. The former New York Rangers captain was traded to the Lightning in 2018, triggering a rebuild on Broadway.
Former general manager Steve Yzerman began the building process and current GM Julien BrisBois picked up where Yzerman left off. Jon Cooper, the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, has integrated these players into the lineup masterfully. It's a blueprint that other organizations should strive to emulate but it's not that easy. Some of it is luck and some of it is smarts. For every draft pick that made them look smart there was one that didn't quite pan out.
But management did a fantastic job of filling in the gaps with the right players when they were needed.
The strange pandemic-shortened season made their title defense even more difficult. But in the end, the scrappy Habs could not match the talent level of such a deep team. They were a great story with a great goalie who deserved a shot at hockey glory. That goalie, Carey Price, tried to shoulder the blame saying he felt that he didn't play well enough at the start of the series.
Montreal captain Shea Weber interrupted him to dispel that notion.
"I don't think that's the case," Weber said in his postgame Zoom press conference. "I think we weren't good enough in front of Carey. They're here for a reason, they're a heckuva team. They were better than us in the end."
The Lightning is the best team of the salary cap era and they could very well win a third one next season. It's becoming more and more difficult with the flat cap and another expansion team, the Seattle Kraken. And while this management team always seems to have an answer for everything, the entire team knows the reality of the cap situation. It's something they have talked openly about throughout this postseason run.
Tyler Johnson will likely be gone, as will Coleman and Goodrow.
"It's so hard to win the Stanley Cup. And then you do it two years in a row, you deserve to go down in history," Stamkos said. "And 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. 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."
After Stamkos and Hedman took their laps with the Cup, it was handed off to Savard, the only veteran in the group who had never won one in the past. It was fitting.
It was exactly how management drew it up.