EDMONTON, Alberta — The joyful yells from the bench could be heard in the empty arena in the final seconds and the roar from players when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called for Steven Stamkos to accept the Stanley Cup echoed even louder.
The triumph of winning the championship in a bubble was certainly no less sweet for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Brayden Point scored his playoff-best 14th goal and the Lightning beat the Dallas Stars 2-0 on Monday night to finish off the most unusual NHL postseason in history, staged nearly entirely in quarantine because of the pandemic. The clock hitting zeros with no fans in attendance for Game 6 of the best-of-seven Final set off a celebration for a team that endured years of playoff heartbreak and two months in isolation.
“It takes a lot to be in a bubble for 80 days or whatever long it was,” said Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. “But it’s all worth it now, we’re coming home with the Cup.”
Before giving the trophy to Hedman, Bettman gave all the players credit for enduring a quarantine largely on their own for so long.
“To be in this place at this time under these circumstances is remarkable and frankly overwhelming,” Bettman said. “Frankly, all of the players who participated should feel like MVPs.”
Goals from Point and Blake Coleman and a 22-save shutout by Andrei Vasilevskiy were enough to power the Lightning to its second championship after also winning it in 2004. That one came with the league on the verge of a labor stoppage, a lockout that wiped out an entire season, and similar uncertainty hangs in the air now because of the coronavirus.
Questions about the future were put off for a celebration by the Lightning and by the NHL, the first of the four major North American professional sports leagues to crown a champion since the start of the pandemic.
Tampa Bay’s core group closed out the Final with an almost poetic display of what got the Lightning to this point over the past several years and months.
Point’s goal came with assists from longtime standouts Nikita Kucherov and Hedman, key addition Coleman scored on an odd-man rush in the second and Vasilevskiy did his job on a relatively slow night in net.
Game 6 was more of a coronation than a challenge as the dominant Lightning outshot the Stars 29-22 (21-8 after two periods) and looked like the powerhouse they’ve been for much of the past decade.
“The beauty of our team is everyone was chipping in,” Point said. “We got contributions from anyone and everyone at different times, and that’s what makes this win so special.”
In the final alone, Tampa Bay’s power play was clicking and turned the series around. Point’s goal made it 7 for 16 over the past five games against the Stars, who were undone by their lack of discipline and couldn’t get enough “Dobby” magic from goaltender Anton Khudobin.
The Stars simply ran out of gas after injuries piled up. Rick Bowness, an assistant for Tampa Bay for five years who was part of their 2015 run that fell short in the Final, faced his own uncertain future as interim coach.
The Lightning did to the Stars what Chicago did to them in the 2015 final, when injuries built up. Tampa Bay had Point and No. 2 center Anthony Cirelli playing hurt this time, didn’t have injured Stamkos for almost all of the playoffs — and still survived.
The painful playoff losses look like mile markers now — losing four consecutive games to Chicago after going up 2-1, blowing 3-2 series leads in the Eastern Conference final in 2016 and 2018, and last season’s jaw-dropping, first-round sweep by Columbus after the Lightning had tied the NHL record for victories in a season and won the Presidents’ Trophy.
Bettman presented the Lightning with the Stanley Cup exactly 200 days after his dismal if hopeful announcement the season was being put on pause with 189 games left unplayed.
The league and players’ union worked for nearly four months to iron out where, how and when to play so 2020 wouldn’t join 1919 and 2004 as a year in which the Cup wasn’t awarded. The plan they came up with was unusual.
Like the NBA, it called for walling off teams from the public for months on end. Unlike the NBA, it called for doing it in two spots — Toronto and Edmonton, while the U.S. grappled with spiking coronavirus cases in too many places for NHL leadership to feel comfortable.
• The league and Players’ Association will meet within the next two weeks to discuss the many possibilities of what the 2020-21 season could look like, but there’s no desire to stage it entirely within quarantined bubbles.
“Certainly not for a season, of course not,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said. “Nobody is going to do that for four months or six months or something like that. Whether we could create some protected environments that people would be tested and they’d be clean when they came in and lasted for some substantially shorter period of time, with people cycling in and out, is one of the things I suspect we will examine.”
The two sides will talk about when next season might start, how many games might be possible, what testing and protocols might be required and whether fans might be allowed into buildings at some point.