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- Michael Traikos Postmedia News

Two months and more than 33,000 negative tests later, the Stanley Cup has been awarded.

The playoffs are over. The bubble has been burst. And the look on the players’ faces — a mixed bag of unbridled joy and restless relief — tells you that it couldn’t have happened sooner.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, who defeated the Dallas Stars 2- 0 in a Cup-clinching Game 6 on Monday, are the champions of this weird and unforgetta­ble season. It was also a successful season. Who would have thought that back in March when the season was put on hold because of a global pandemic? Or in May, when commission­er Gary Bettman outlined a Return to Play plan that seemed wildly ambitious, if not unrealisti­c.

In the end, this wasn’t the disaster it could have easily have been. The players deserve credit for that. They bought in. They did not embarrass themselves with positive tests or by compromisi­ng the bubble with late- night visitors. The hockey wasn’t slow, or sloppy or lacking in intensity.

Call it the COVID-19 Cup if you want. But know this: what Tampa Bay — and Dallas, for that matter — went through in the past eight weeks was anything but easy.

We’ve always been told that the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in all of sports to win. Well, no one would dispute that now.

If there is an asterisk attached to this championsh­ip, it should signify just how difficult this championsh­ip was to win.

This was a gruelling post- season. It began in the first week of August, with 24 teams participat­ing in a tournament that was five-rounds long. That was impressive enough. But by far the most challengin­g part was what the players had to endure off the ice.

Living in bubbles, which were jokingly referred to as prisons, wasn’t easy. There were daily nasal swabs and temperatur­e checks. With a few exceptions, there was no physical contact with families or friends — or the outside world. Players were either at the rink or in their hotel. Imagine living that routine for eight long weeks. It was a sacrifice as much as it was an endurance test. And, to see the ear-to-ear grin on Steven Stamkos’ bearded face, you know it was all worth it.

This was a long time coming for the Tampa Bay captain.

The Stanley Cup can cement a legacy. But, as Alex Ovechkin knows after he silenced his critics in 2018, it can also rewrite a narrative.

The Lightning had lost to Chicago in the 2105 final. Two years ago, they blew a 3-2 lead in the conference final to Washington, who went on to win the Cup.

And then, there was last year’s embarrassm­ent, where Tampa Bay went from winning the Presidents’ Trophy and setting a record for most wins in the season to getting swept in the first round.

All that is in the past now. We’ll never think of Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Andrei Vasilevski­y the same. You can say the same for head coach Jon Cooper, who may have saved his job by finally cashing in on the championsh­ip that had eluded this all-star roster for years.

Tampa Bay might not have been the best team in the regular season this year. But they sure looked like it when the post-season arrived. The Lightning, which played about four hours of overtime in these playoffs, lost just six games in four rounds.

But it was the way in which they won that showed how versatile this team was.

The Lightning played bump- and- grind hockey against the Blue Jackets. They outscored and outdefende­d Boston’s so-called Perfection line. They stayed patient — and awake — against the rope- a- dope New York Islanders.

In the final, their skill took over.

Kucherov, who led all scorers with 34 points, had eight points against Dallas. Point, scored five of his playoff-leading 14 goals and eight of his 33 points in the final. Victor Hedman finished the post- season with 10 goals and 22 points, including six points in these past six games.

Even Stamkos, who played just half a dozen minutes in Game 4 of the final — his only appearance in the playoffs — contribute­d a goal to the cause.

The top line of Kucherov, Point and Ondrej Palat once again showed up in Game 6, with Point putting Tampa Bay ahead 1- 0 on a power- play goal that Kucherov assisted on. It was the trio’s ninth goal of the series.

And while Tampa Bay’s top-end talent was a big reason why the Lightning won the Cup, the missing piece to their championsh­ip puzzle was less flashy and a bit grittier. This team doesn’t win this Cup without Pat Maroon, Luke Schenn or Zach Bogosian. They probably don’t even get past the first round without the trade deadline acquisitio­ns of Blake Coleman, who put the Lightning ahead 2- 0 on a one- timed pass from Cedric Paquette in the second period, or Barclay Goodrow.

For Dallas, it was no contest. The Stars looked overmatche­d and underskill­ed in a series that wasn’t as close as the final score made it seem. They didn’t have a line that was dangerous as Point, Kucherov and Palat. They didn’t get the timely saves from Anton Khudobin in the way that Tampa Bay got them from Vasilevski­y. It didn’t help that injuries robbed the Stars of their top penalty killers or that Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin combined for zero goals. But the big difference was desperatio­n.

Tampa Bay, which entered the season and the playoffs with a chip on their shoulders after last year’s disappoint­ment, needed this championsh­ip. And nothing — not the Stars, not COVID-19, not a serious injury to Stamkos or anything that the team faced within the bubble in Toronto or Edmonton — was going to stop them. It was truly unforgetta­ble.

 ?? Pery Nelson / USA TODAY Sports ?? Tampa Bay Lightning forward Patrick Maroon celebrates a goal by centre Blake Coleman against the Dallas Stars during Monday’s game.
Pery Nelson / USA TODAY Sports Tampa Bay Lightning forward Patrick Maroon celebrates a goal by centre Blake Coleman against the Dallas Stars during Monday’s game.
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