TAMPA, Fla. — On a group for the ages, he’s the face.

Steven Stamkos shouldn’t be solely the Lightning’s captain, he’s their conscience. The total group has been hardened by their scars through the years, and Stamkos has led in that class, too — each bodily and psychological. The accidents. The doubts. The ache.

The days he didn’t need to get away from bed.

All of these issues make nights like these sweeter. The pleasure unbridled. The pleasure unparalleled. The Lightning are the Eastern Conference champions for the third straight yr, an unprecedented, unthinkable feat throughout the salary-cap period. The back-to-back Stanley Cup champions are 4 wins away from immortality, from dynasty standing, due to their collective dedication, their sacrifice and their belief in each other.

And the actual fact they embody the character of their captain.

Stamkos’ two targets had been the distinction in a 2-1 victory over the Rangers in Game 6 on Saturday evening, together with his game-winner with seven minutes left. The Lightning are recognized for not panicking, for responding to adversity, with many gamers having their moments on this playoff run. But it was becoming that this evening belonged to Stamkos, who carried across the Prince of Wales Trophy and led the handshake line as DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” had followers dancing in every single place from the stands to Thunder Alley.

“There is a lot of weight on his shoulders. He’s got to score, he’s got to lead, he’s got to be the face of the franchise,” coach Jon Cooper stated. “At some point, you want the light to shine on him. And it has in so many different ways. But in an elimination game, to not only score first but to answer 21 seconds after they tied it, I’m proud. I’m proud that ‘Stammer’ got this moment.’”

Stamkos was within the penalty field when the Rangers tied the sport within the third interval, his holding penalty the offender. But as Stamkos sat there, watching his opponents have a good time a slap shot away, listening to a once-rocking Amalie Arena go stone-cold silent, a bizarre sense of calm came to visit him.

Twenty-one seconds later, Stamkos’ wrist shot trickled by Igor Shesterkin, his fortieth profession playoff aim, and one of many largest.

“For some reason, I wasn’t as rattled as I usually am in those situations,” Stamkos stated. “I think I was just confident in our group that we’d find a way. We deserved to win that game tonight. That was the feeling we had from puck drop to in between intermission. Just keep going. Our will is going to take over.”

For as a lot as Tampa Bay is loaded with stars, from Andrei Vasilevskiy to Nikita Kucherov to Victor Hedman to Brayden Point, it’s the will that we’ll all bear in mind about this group 20 years from now. The braveness to dam photographs. The guts to rally from a 3-2 sequence deficit to beat Toronto within the first spherical. The depth to comb the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers within the second spherical (with out Point). The moxie to get better after dropping two video games in New York after which win 4 straight. The self-discipline to comply with the “recipe” they’ve sworn by.

Process over final result.

Work over hope.

Defend till the tip.

The Lightning have given up 9 targets of their final eight victories, with the Anthony Cirelli-led line smothering the Rangers’ high line and Vasilevskiy shutting the door. Now they face essentially the most explosive offense in hockey within the Colorado Avalanche, with Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final scheduled for Wednesday in Denver.

Who’s betting towards these guys? Plus, Cooper stated Saturday evening that Point is “extremely probable” to play in some unspecified time in the future throughout the sequence.

“I think it’s just belief in ourselves and belief in the work you put in,” Stamkos stated. “But trust is the word. We trust every guy that goes over those boards to do his job. Whether you score a goal or not, it’s the little things you do. It’s the defending. It’s the blocked shots. It’s the sacrifice. It’s not complaining about your role. It’s going out and playing as hard as you can for the guy that sits beside you in the locker room. That’s why this group is so special. We don’t know what’s going to happen here in the next 10 to 14 days. But we know we’re going to give it our all. It’s gotten us this far again. It’s just a special group to be a part of.”

The 11 consecutive sequence victories are outstanding, a credit score to the gamers, after all. But possession and administration personal a big piece of this, too, having the conviction and endurance to stay with this core and training employees following the humbling 2019 sweep by Columbus. Stamkos & Co. had made it to the Cup Final in 2015, and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference remaining in 2016 and 2018, however there have been some who had been questioning whether or not this could possibly be the group that would break by. Even Stamkos admitted the evening of the Blue Jackets sweep that he believed, however “it’s one thing to say, and another to do.”

“This didn’t happen overnight,” Cooper stated. “It takes time. But it’s a must to give credit score to Jeff Vinik and Steve Yzerman and Julien BriseBois. They saved the group collectively, believing in the long run and never simply knee-jerk reactions saying, ‘You know what, this has got to blow up,’ as a result of 2019 was a simple one. That was a simple out. But you get knocked round that many occasions and also you’re nonetheless going again, you realize you’ve acquired one thing…

“Maybe Torts was right. Maybe he did create a monster.”

Stamkos has gotten knocked round extra occasions than he can rely in his profession. He’s been a teenage prodigy, a capturing star, a scoring champion.

He’s additionally been damage, and doubted. But each time he suffered a critical harm — from a damaged leg to a torn meniscus to a blood clot to a number of core surgical procedures — he fought his manner again to return to an elite degree. This yr might need been the very best yr of his profession, a “rebirth.” He recorded his first 100-point season, broke Marty St. Louis’ franchise factors file and will have surpassed his mentor as the very best Lightning participant of all time.

This Stamkos was a product of him lastly being wholesome. He spent all summer season coaching versus rehabbing. He was in pretty much as good a spot mentally and bodily in years. He was a play-driver for the Lightning after they completely wanted it, particularly with Kucherov and Point lacking a big chunk of the primary half of the season.

And within the playoffs, Stamkos has set the tone. He’s blocking photographs, taking place the tunnel a few occasions within the Florida sequence earlier than returning. He’s giving speeches, telling teammates on the second intermission of Game 6 towards Toronto that “Tonight is not the night when this ends.” He’s preventing, tossing round Alexis Lafrenière on the finish of Game 5.

“He’s been leading the way,” Pat Maroon stated. “He’s been banging his body a lot, too, getting his licks in, scoring goals, blocking shots, taking faceoffs when we need them at key times. We try to follow what he’s doing.”

Lightning teammates all adopted Stamkos to the postgame ceremony to just accept the Prince of Wales Trophy. Superstitions be damned, they had been going to the touch that factor. Stamkos carried it round afterward, sharing hugs and laughs. There’s an even bigger trophy within the sights of Stamkos and his group, hockey’s holy grail, however they’re making an attempt to let all of it sink in as to what they’ve completed. Let it soak in.

“Growing up in Canada, you always dream about having your name on the Cup,” Cooper stated. “To get there the first time was a dream come true. To get there a second time, the next year, was a dream. There’s no way you’re going back. And then to go a third time, that’s unthinkable. The players, I sit back and I’m proud, I’m impressed by them. To watch their growth, watch their pain.”

And watch the sunshine fittingly shine on Stamkos.

(Photo of Steven Stamkos: Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

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