“It’s a surreal feeling once again,” said top Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman. “It’s out of this world. Winning the Stanley Cup once again is one thing, but doing it in front of our family and friends means the world.”
Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevski became the first European goalie ever to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. The Russian netminder’s 22-save shutout was his league-leading fifth of the 2021 playoffs, and four of them came in series clinchers.
“It’s not about me, it’s about our team,” Vasilevski said modestly.
Vasilevski also finished with a sparkling 1.90 GAA and 93.7 save percentage. The 26-year-old Tyumen product outdueled Montreal’s Carey Price in these finals and joined a pair of other storied Canadiens – Jacques Plante (1956-58) and Ken Dryden (1976-78) – as the only starting netminders to win back-to-back Cups with a GAA of less than 2.00 (minimum of 10 games played) in each run.
“To do it again is just validation into history,” said Bolts captain Steven Stamkos, who was limited by injuries to one goal in the 2020 finals against the Dallas Stars in 2:47 of total playoff ice time. “Last year was amazing. I think this tops it!”
The game-winner was equal parts skill and grit. Tampa Bay’s Ross Colton broke the scoreless tie at 13:27 of the second period with his fourth goal of the playoffs. The 24-year-old New Jersey-born rookie went to the net with his stick on the ice to convert a perfect pass from a pinching David Savard.
Cooper noted that Lightning third-liner Barclay Goodrow’s shot-block on Habs captain Shea Weber’s 163 km/hour drive “summed up the character of this team.” Another role player, Patrick Maroon, became the first player in the NHL’s post-expansion era to win three consecutive Cups with two different teams. Maroon also won with the St. Louis Blues in 2019.
Tampa Bay has triumphed twice under highly unusual circumstances: last year’s bubble-format playoffs staged in Toronto and Edmonton in August and September and this year’s playoffs coming off a 56-game regular season with four realigned divisions and limited fan attendance. Never before has the Cup been handed out in July.
The Lightning’s first Cup run in 2004 was backstopped by Russian goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. And as the 2021 finals wore on, it became evident that a Russian would receive the Conn Smythe for the third time in history. The only question was whether it would be Vasilevski or Nikita Kucherov.
Kucherov stirred the pot during his post-game comments: “The fans in Montreal acted like they won the Stanley Cup last game. Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? Their final was last series.”
Three Europeans in the last 10 years have now led the NHL playoffs in points twice without winning the Conn Smythe: Kucherov, the Czech Republic’s David Krejci (2011, 2013), and Slovenia’s Anze Kopitar (L.A., 2012, 2014).
The two previous Russians named playoff MVP were Yevgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins (2009), who led the playoffs with 36 points en route to his first Cup, and Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals (2018), who topped the post-season with 15 goals en route to his first Cup.
When you factor in the hard-rock contributions of blueliner Mikhail Sergachev, Russians have arguably never meant more to any back-to-back Cup winners since the late-90’s Detroit Red Wings. Those Wings featured such Hall of Famers as Sergei Fyodorov, Igor Larionov, and Vyacheslav Fetisov, as well as Vyacheslav Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov.
Meanwhile, the underdog Canadiens failed to bring the Cup back to Canada for the first time since 1993 with Conn Smythe winner Patrick Roy in net. However, 2021 will still be remembered in Quebec’s largest city as a magical run – especially the first round. Coach Dominic Ducharme’s team – who finished 18th in league points (75) – rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to shock the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was the first playoff clash between the classic archrivals since Montreal’s sweep in the 1979 quarter-finals.
“It’s incredibly disappointing, but I’m only disappointed in the result,” said Price. “Our young guys did get a lot of experience, but it’s hard to look ahead right now. We’ll lick our wounds and get back at it eventually.”
The loss denied Weber (WM gold 2007, OG gold 2010 and 2014) entry into the Triple Gold Club. Meanwhile, in the 21st century, no goalie who has started and won an Olympic gold medal game has also captured the Stanley Cup since Martin Brodeur (2002). Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist (2006), Canada’s Roberto Luongo (2010), and Price (2014) have all fallen short, while Russian netminder Vasili Koshechkin (2018) has never appeared in the NHL.
“This group has a lot of character,” said Weber. “We went up against a lot of adversity this year and proved a lot of people wrong. I’m super-proud of these guys.”
“They bled, they fought, they never gave up,” added Ducharme of the players who brought inspiration to the city of Montreal despite the challenges of the pandemic. And the Canadiens, of course, remain the all-time NHL leader in Stanley Cups (24).
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay must savor this moment since there are salary cap-driven changes coming. With close to $87 million US allocated toward their players under contract next year, the champs will need to get down under the $81.5-million cap in place for 2021-22.
Still, if the Lightning can keep their core of superstars together, they have a realistic shot at becoming the first club since the New York Islanders (1980-83) to win more than two straight Cups.