Photo Courtesy: Sporting News | @sportingnews

EDMONTON, Alberta — The Tampa Bay Lightning are the champions of bubble hockey.

Brayden Point scored his playoff-best 14th goal, and the Lightning beat the Dallas Stars 2-0 on Monday to win the Stanley Cup and finish the most unusual NHL postseason in history, staged nearly entirely in quarantine because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nonetheless, the clock’s hitting zeros in an empty arena set off a joyful 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 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.”

The ultra-talented Lightning, one of the league’s top teams not to win the title the past five years, finally completed the complicated puzzle that is the Stanley Cup playoffs, securing their first championship since 2004. They defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets; the Boston Bruins, the league’s No. 1 team in the regular season; and the New York Islanders before eliminating the Stars in a marathon through two Canadian bubble sites that featured multiple overtimes and plenty of drama.

Goals from Point and Blake Coleman and a 22-save shutout by Andrei Vasilevskiy in Game 6 were enough to power the Lightning past a pesky Stars team that stayed alive with a double-overtime victory on Saturday in Game 5.

“That last period was probably the longest period of my life,” Hedman said just before winning the MVP award. “There’s so many emotions at the same time.”

In 2004, the Lightning won the title with the league on the verge of a labor stoppage, a lockout that wiped out an entire season. The franchise is used to winning with uncertainty hovering around the league.

Questions about next season, though, were put off for a celebration by the Lightning and the NHL. Getting this done was a triumph of sorts, financial woes notwithstanding. The NHL is 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 the past several years and months. Their new star in Point scored a power-play goal in the first period with assists from longtime standouts Nikita Kucherov and Hedman, key addition Coleman killed a penalty and scored on an odd-man rush in the second, and Vasilevskiy did his job on a relatively slow night in net.

It was more of a coronation than a challenge, as the dominant Lightning outshot the Stars 29-22 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 tremendous depth. We got contributions from anyone and everyone at different times, and that’s what makes this win so special.”

In the Final, Tampa Bay’s power play was clicking and turned the series around. Point’s goal made it 7-for-16 the past five games to decimate the Stars, who were undone by their lack of discipline and couldn’t get enough “Dobby” magic from goaltender Anton Khudobin.

The Stars ran out of gas after injuries piled up. Rick Bowness, an assistant for Tampa Bay for five years who was part of the team’s 2015 run that fell short in the Final, faces an uncertain future as interim coach.

“I couldn’t ask more from our players,” Bowness said. “So it wasn’t enough to beat that team, so it wasn’t enough. But it’s better than sitting here saying how we could have done this or could have done [that]. We don’t second-guess anything we’ve done.”

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 captain Steven Stamkos for almost all of the playoffs — and still survived.

“These last six weeks have been really emotional for my family and I, not only on the ice but off the ice,” said Stamkos, who played just 2 minutes, 37 seconds in the playoffs but scored a goal in Game 3. “I just want to say to my family: I love you guys so much. To all the friends and everyone who supported us along the way: We love you. We can’t wait to celebrate with you.”

The painful playoff losses look like mile markers now — losing three consecutive games to Chicago after going up 2-1, blowing 3-2 series leads in the Eastern Conference finals in 2016 and 2018 and last season’s jaw-dropping, first-round sweep by Columbus after the Lightning tied the NHL single-season wins record and won the Presidents’ Trophy.

Coach Jon Cooper thought the attitude needed to change from wanting to beat every opponent 9-0 because that’s not realistic in playoff hockey. His team went 12-3 in one-goal games this postseason, and he said the Lightning won because they were strengthened by years of “heartbreak.”

“To come back year after year and take our swings and take our licks and be talked about here as the kids who are going to be here every year — and now we’re talked about as the team who can’t get it done — and you know what? We got it done,” Cooper said. “And it wasn’t without failures along the way.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman was on hand to present the Lightning with the Stanley Cup exactly 200 days after his dismal if hopeful announcement that the season would be put on pause with 189 games left.

The league and the players’ union worked for nearly four months to iron out where, how and when to play so that 2020 wouldn’t join 1919 and 2004 as a year when the Cup wasn’t awarded. The plan they came up with was unusual. Like the NBA’s, it called for walling off teams from the public for months on end. Unlike the NBA’s plan, it called for doing so 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.

It worked. After more than 31,000 tests, there were zero positive coronavirus cases reported among players, coaches and staff inside the bubbles and just a handful among hotel, arena or restaurant employees. There was nothing close to an outbreak.

Bizarre as it was with no fans and manufactured crowd noise and light shows, the hockey was often top-notch. The expanded, 24-team postseason meant there was hockey nearly every day, sometimes from midday until past midnight, including a five-overtime marathon that was the second-longest game in modern hockey history. In this unprecedented postseason, there were two elimination games on the same day in the same arena.

By the conference finals, Rogers Place, a nearby JW Marriott and the rest of a heavily fenced bubble in downtown Edmonton had become the center of hockey for fans thousands of miles away, with Dallas and Tampa Bay, two of the southernmost teams in the league, settling the Cup in the NHL’s northernmost arena.

In all, the NHL played 130 games in a bubble, 25 of them into overtime, before the final horn set off a celebration by Tampa Bay that had to suffice with no fans in the stands and few loved ones on the ice to share the moment. Players embraced one another and took out their phones to call and video chat with those who couldn’t be there.

“We were in the bubble for this many days away from our friends and family, our support systems,” Stamkos said. “We love each and every person that has helped us and allowed us to come here and accomplish our dream.”

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