By Joe Smith (The Athletic)

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos stood in the middle of the team’s dressing room at Rogers Place Wednesday night, likely knowing he had played his last game of the season.

Stamkos, 30, was coming off an emotional, inspiring return with a goal on his first shot in a Game 3 victory — putting him forever in franchise and playoff lore. But Stamkos had one last message to the group, then two wins away from the elusive Stanley Cup.

“To see the transformation we’ve had from where we were last year to now, it’s unbelievable,” Stamkos told the team. “This is the fucking group, and I’ve fucking got a great feeling, so let’s fucking do this.”

On Monday night, the Lightning finally (bleeping) did it. They’re Stanley Cup champions. Just 18 months removed from a historic, humbling first-round exit, they wrote the perfect ending to one of sport’s greatest redemption stories. It wasn’t easy, which was fitting for a core group in its fourth deep playoff run in six years, its previous scars hardening its unshakable resilience and resolve. But when Stamkos finally hoisted the Stanley Cup late Monday night in Edmonton, after Tampa Bay’s 2-0 victory over the Stars in Game 6, you had the feeling the struggles made this one even sweeter.

“We’re going to be Stanley Cup champs forever,” said Conn Smythe Trophy-winning defenseman Victor Hedman. “Our kids, our grandkids, if they look at the Stanley Cup, they’re going to see our name on it.”

“It still doesn’t feel real,” Stamkos said. “I’m speechless. What happened last year, there was a chip on our shoulder, so many people counted us out. The doubters. We kept the same core together, added some vital pieces and came together.”

As the Lightning passed the Cup around an empty arena, their 65th day in a pandemic-sparked bubble, the exuberance and elation seemed the same as it would have been had they clinched in front of a sellout crowd at Amalie Arena. They decided to first pose around hockey’s holy grail together, this two-month grind an ultimate team effort. They FaceTimed their families from the ice before starting the party in the dressing room, where they sprayed each other with champagne, chugged bubbly and Bud Light from the Cup. They sang songs like John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” They danced. They shed tears. They crashed each other’s Zoom media interviews, with Nikita Kucherov photobombing Brayden Point before saying, “We’re not staying here all night.”

Their families, all over the world, from Tampa to Idaho to Calgary to Sweden, were all raising a glass Monday night. Their wives, unable to reach the bubble due to Canadian government restrictions, met in Tampa to watch together, mostly at Brayden Point’s house; there, they celebrated some wins by doing a conga line to the team’s victory song, Young Gravy’s “Gravy Train.” Jeff Vinik, his wife, Penny, their four children and a half dozen friends stood and screamed at the end. Vinik, through coach Jon Cooper, addressed the team via FaceTime after the game, telling them, “So many years in the making. Unbelievable effort. You deserve it.” Vinik got to fulfill a promise he made when saving the team a decade ago. Vinik’s celebration included champagne, some special bottles of wine given by friends the past 10 years to toast this milestone moment. He said his kids were teaching him how to do shots of 30-year old Tequila.

“I had no doubt we were going to win it,” Vinik said by phone shortly after the Cup celebration. “The core has been together a number of years. We won a ton of playoff series, lost some tough ones. We had the heartbreak against Columbus. But all those experiences came together. Our guys were on a mission from day one, and there was no flinch, no self-congratulation, no let-up. It’s very, very special.”

Many wondered if this team would ever win it all after falling two games short in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and blowing a 3-2 lead in both the 2016 and 2018 Eastern Conference final. The Lightning became trivia fodder following last spring’s sweep by Columbus, a defeat that fueled them and also forced the necessary changes to win hockey’s holy grail. The Lightning will be in cap hell this offseason, with some familiar faces likely exiting, but that’s tomorrow’s problem. On Monday night, it was about vindication, validation, and the ultimate victory for a team that just wouldn’t be denied.

No playoff team had played more overtime minutes than the Lightning, none had to do so while in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. In some ways, this might have been the hardest Cup to win in league history, and that’s a label the Lightning will proudly wear.

They’ll “walk together forever,” as former Lightning center Tim Taylor told the 2004 Cup-winning team the night they won. That group, led by Hall of Famers Martin St. Louis and Dave Andreychuk, along with Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, were the standard-bearers for the last couple of decades. They told this Tampa Bay team that it was “their turn,” pulling for them to “bring the Cup home.” And on Tuesday, they will do just that, reuniting with families at 7 p.m. in a private event at Amalie Arena.

There will be a boat parade down the Tampa riverwalk on Wednesday, with a rally to follow at 7:30 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium. Alex Killorn, of “Dock Talk” fame, tweeted his jetskis will be fired up. Vinik had said he would get on a jetski if his team won the Cup, so you know this party could be as unique as the journey to get here.

Patrick Maroon celebrates Blake Coleman’s goal in Game 6. (Perry Nelson / USA Today Sports)

Cooper was asked what made the Lightning finally ready to win, and he had one word for it: “Heartbreak.”

The image is still as clear as day of the players slumped into their locker stalls at Nationwide Arena that mid-April night in 2019, stumped for how their 62-win team was unceremoniously bounced in six days.

Stamkos was asked that night if he still believed the team’s core could win it all?

“Yeah, we believe it,” Stamkos said. “It’s one thing to believe it and say it, and it’s another to go out there and execute.”

“It sucks,” said 2019 Hart Trophy-winner Nikita Kucherov. “I guess it just wasn’t our time.”

It was fair to wonder then if it would ever be the Lightning’s “time?”

Two days later, general manager Julien BriseBois stood at a podium in Tampa saying they had to show humility. They had to look in the mirror at why this happened, but remain steadfast in their plan. BriseBois would meet with Vinik at the owner’s home that week, with the two agreeing they wouldn’t “blow this up,” sticking behind their core and their coach, Jon Cooper.

“The story of this team, the story of this nucleus of players, of this coaching staff (is that) it’s not over,” BriseBois said April 19. “It’s still being written. The best and most memorable chapters lie ahead. I have great faith that eventually we’ll get the job done and we’ll bring the Cup back to Tampa with this group of players, with these coaches. I don’t know when, but I know when we do, it’ll be all the more sweeter because of the disappointments we’ve experienced along our journey to making that happen, including the disappointment we’re feeling right now.”

BriseBois knew the Lightning room, which lost established veterans Dan Girardi and Ryan Callahan, needed some new voices. He took a swing at Joe Pavelski, who would sign with the Stars, before adding Cup champion Pat Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk, who had a chip on his shoulder after getting bought out by the Rangers. Both Maroon and Shattenkirk were instrumental voices early on when the healing group was still living in the past from the spring sweep.

It was Maroon who was driving the bus off the ice by the first month of the season, the ring-leader on most of their Stockholm outings on their galvanizing Global Series trip to Sweden in early November.

It was Shattenkirk, a leader his entire career, who became a calming influence in the playoffs, including delivering an emotional speech during the second intermission of Game 5 against Boston that helped them seal that series. “It wasn’t a ‘Rudy’ speech, but it got the job done,” Shattenkirk would tell his father Pat.

Maybe it was the new players, or perhaps it was the collective hurt from playoffs past, but this was the tightest-knit Lightning team they can remember. Tyler Johnson recalled how cliques were a problem in recent seasons, but this group did everything together, from dinners on the road, to soccer and baseball games, and “Call of Duty” sessions in the Toronto bubble. There was a “February closeness in October,” is how Cooper put it. They bonded together through group chats and Zooms during the four-month pause, with every post-win tradition one of collaboration; the player of the game put a puck into a Stanley Cup shaped board, from the first to 16th wins, but not before he’d single out two other teammates’ performances.

The group also sought the advice of motivational speaker Jon Gordon, who delivered a 45-minute speech in September on the importance of being “connected and committed,” with the greatest teams fighting for each other. Stamkos identified one message that especially rang true:

“It’s not about defending your position as an elite team. It’s about attacking something new.” 

Steven Stamkos reacts during the 2019 playoff series against the Blue Jackets. (Aaron Doster / USA Today Sports)

On the ice, the Lightning had to make adjustments, like limiting penalties and scoring chances, especially off the rush and in the slot. They were a .500 team a month into the season, with everyone asking “What’s wrong with the Lightning?”

“Nothing was wrong with us,” Cooper said. “We were just going through some growing pains.”

The staff had to make some tough decisions, like benching Kucherov during a mid-December game for being sloppy with the puck and a lack of defensive awareness. To his credit, Kucherov stepped up and owned up to it with teammates. He was as engaged and mature during this playoffs as he’s ever been in his career. There are only three players to rack up 26 or more assists in a postseason — Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Kucherov. But more than that, Kucherov was coming through with game-saving backchecks.

“I just think they committed themselves to playing the right way,” Maroon said. “From talking to players in the past that have been here for so many years, they’ve never recognized that if you play the right way and do the little things that make yourself as a team and individual have success, good results are going to happen.

“I think we were all committed. We’re all playing smart. When you see results, people start to realize that it’s effective and it does work.”

As good as the Lightning were heading into the trade deadline, BriseBois decided to make some bold moves in giving up two first-rounders and top prospect Nolan Foote in separate deals to acquire Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman. The duo, along with defenseman Zach Bogosian, signed to a one-year deal in February, helped change the fabric and feel of the team, which was much harder to play against than in previous seasons.

Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman said this is the most physical Cup Final he’s seen, calling it “survival of the fittest,” and the Lightning can more than hold their own.

“I think they’re a more complete team,” Bowman said. “They had a lot more skill before, but you need different kind of players. You can’t have a team without skill and you can’t have a team with all skill. Of all the teams, even my great teams in Montreal, Detroit, Pittsburgh, we always had a line or grinding type players. They showed up and worked hard. They weren’t Hall of Fame players, but they mixed in and set the pace.”

When the Lightning reached the Cup Final in 2015, led by the “Triplets” line, they looked like they were the new kids on the block ready to win multiple championships. Their core — led by Stamkos, Hedman, Kucherov, Ondrej Palat — were all in their prime. Bowman, who had lost the first 12 Cup Final games of his coaching career, told Cooper, “You’ll be back” when the two met on the United Center ice after Chicago won the Cup in 2015. The Lightning never thought it’d take five years.

“They were a good team, and you knew they would be for a long period of time,” said Patrick Sharp, a three-time Cup champion who was on the 2015 Blackhawks. “They assembled a bunch of young talent, all came up at the right time. They were definitely good enough to win that year, it was a back-and-forth series. We were on the right side of things, but it could have gone either way. They’ve seen some heartbreaking losses over the years. They lost to Pittsburgh (in 2016), who won the Cup. They lost to Washington (in 2018), who won the Cup. We all know what happened last year.  They’ve come a long way. There’s a relentlessness to their group that I hadn’t seen in years past.”

Brayden Point and teammates celebrate Point’s game-winning goal in the fifth overtime period in Game 1 of their first-round series against Columbus. (Elsa / Getty Images)

The fact the Lightning had to go through Columbus in the first round got them immediately dialed in, with a five-overtime victory in Game 1 setting the tone for the entire playoffs.

It was more than just who scored, as Point solidified his status as a superstar, but how they did it, showing the kind of patience and toughness they lacked the year before. Tampa Bay blew through the President’s Trophy-winning Bruins in five games, with Hedman scoring the double-OT winner in Game 5.

It was clear something special was brewing.

“I do think they’re different,” Andreychuk would say. “They’re a better playoff team, better suited for the playoffs.”

The Lightning were able to go through another defensive gauntlet in the Eastern Conference final with the Islanders, who were led by Barry Trotz. Trotz, who won a Cup in 2018 after several heartbreaks with the Capitals, told Cooper at last summer’s NHL Awards there was a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

And now the Lightning finally see it.

You watch their Cup celebration and think of all it took to get here. There was Hedman, the Conn Smythe winner, who was a driving force at both ends of the ice, from his near-record 10 goals to playing 70 more minutes than any other teammate. There was Kucherov, who dreamed of hoisting the Cup like Alex Ovechkin, delivering a similar kind of redemption after getting suspended for Game 3 of last spring’s first-round series.

“I feel awesome,” Kucherov said. “I’m blacked out, I can’t really tell you what I’m feeling.”

There was Stamkos, whose valiant return in Game 3 — “a magical moment,” Vinik said — was only one inspirational moment in the series, as Stamkos popped into the room after the Game 5 overtime loss and “rallied the troops,” according to Hedman.

There was goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, the 2019 Vezina Trophy winner who lived up to his promise to be better. Vasilevskiy, the only goalie to play every minute of each of his team’s games in the playoffs, clinched the Cup with his first shutout of the playoffs. He didn’t have to steal many games, but he didn’t have any bad ones either.

“It was just amazing,” Vasilevskiy said of his shutout before smiling. “It was about time.”

There was Palat, one of the many mid- to late-round draft picks by Al Murray and his scouting staff, who was the perfect complement on an unstoppable top line with Point and Kucherov. There was Yanni Gourde, who went from a two-month goal drought during the season to the driving force of the team’s terrific third line with Coleman and Goodrow.

There was Coleman, who grew up a Stars fan in Plano, Texas, going to 30 games a season with his grandmother; Coleman recalled staying up past his bedtime at age 7 to listen to the end of Dallas’ Cup victory in 1999. On Monday, Coleman scored a key insurance goal to make it 2-0.

There was Bogosian, in his first career playoff appearance, playing a prominent role for most of the tournament in the top pair with Hedman. Mikhail Sergachev grew as much as anyone during the playoffs, showing why he can be a top-four force. Both Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli are restricted free agents due hefty raises in the next couple of months, and they’ll earn every penny.

And there was Cooper, who took his share of blame for last year’s collapse but seemingly pushed all the right buttons in these playoffs. From his switch to 11 forwards, seven defensemen following Ryan McDonagh’s second-round injury, to moving Gourde back to the middle. In Monday’s Cup-cliniching game, Cooper decided to have rookie wing Alex Volkov make his playoff debut, appearing in just his 10th NHL game; all Volkov did was beat out an icing and draw a penalty that led to Point’s game-opening goal. Cooper added Cup-winner to his title as the league’s longest-tenured coach.

On the eve of the season opener, almost 12 months ago, Cooper said the Columbus sweep stung more than any of their previous playoff losses. But he told the team “you can’t hide from this.” Embrace what happened, own it, feed off the energy. “Look at what happened and come back stronger.”

“Sometimes you have to fail before you can succeed,” Cooper said. “We haven’t had a whole ton of failure in my tenure here. Now we had one of the biggest failures of all time. So now what? That was basically our message to our guys and our team. ‘Well, now what?’ There’s a story we got to write. And I’m pretty excited.”

On Monday night, the Lightning got to finish that story. The last chapter? Champion.

“It still doesn’t feel real,” Stamkos said of holding the Cup. “I’m so proud of every single player on this team. It was so amazing to watch. I’m speechless. I’ve been here since Day 1. The fans have been nothing but amazing. We’re bringing it back to Tampa.”