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Lightning cherishing every moment of opportunity for Cup Final redemption

EDMONTON — What I’ll remember most was the pure guttural scream.

It echoed up through Rogers Place when the Tampa Bay Lightning gathered 48 of the 52 members of their travelling party on the ice with the Prince of Wales Trophy to take a photo here Thursday night.

You’d never know that a celebration could be so emotional in an empty building because, until three days ago with the Dallas Stars, this was completely unprecedented.

The Lightning left their hearts out there. This was a moment six years in the making, or more, for so many members of this organization. And it was clear that booking a trip to the Stanley Cup Final was no less rewarding under these circumstances than it would have been before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19.

“It is so hard to explain, because regardless if there’s fans in the building or not, the exuberance and relief, it’s unparalleled how you feel inside,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “When you look back at this — and it’s not over — but we’ve been in a hotel for 54 straight days. And when people said this might be one of the hardest Cups to win, it might be one of the hardest Cups ever to win. There’s two of us left standing, they’re going through the exact same thing we are.

“You want your fans there, but it’s not about the fans, it’s about the players and the effort and dedication and perseverance they’ve put into this. And they’re the ones that deserve this, because they’ve done all the work.”

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For the Lightning, it was also about Steven Stamkos, even though the captain hasn’t played a game since late February. He’s been rehabbing an undisclosed injury inside the NHL bubble without playing a game and was called out to join Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Alex Killorn for the trophy presentation with deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

The pride on Stamkos’s face was unmistakable. He let Hedman and the others who played in the six-game series victory over the New York Islanders touch the trophy — at least until Hedman skated it over to him with instructions to carry it into the team’s dressing room.

“It was obviously a great feeling,” said Hedman. “Even though Stammer’s not playing, he’s still the leader of this team and he’s such a good influence on the room. During practices and morning skates. He’s still a big reason that he’s here where we are.

“I’m just so happy for the whole group obviously to once again — you know, a few of us went there in 2015. To go back in the Final with the Lightning again is an unreal experience.”

They had good reason to believe this would have happened sooner. It was a young team that lost the 2015 Stanley Cup Final to Chicago in six games.

Tampa has been the NHL’s top team in basically every measurable category since that happened but they’ve experienced nothing but heartbreak. A Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Final in 2016 and 2018, and then a record-breaking 62-win season last year followed by a sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Losing this would have been the ultimate gut punch.

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The Lightning were the better team against New York, but there’s a price to be paid against the Islanders. Brayden Point was in and out of the series, Ondrej Palat took a shot off the foot during Thursday’s series-clinching 2-1 victory and Anthony Cirelli left for a time after an accidental knee-on-knee collision with Anders Lee.

It was Cirelli who finally froze the clock in overtime with his first goal and first point of the season.

The celebration was incredible. These guys understood on a fundamental level what this meant.

“You have to cherish these moments and try your best to take advantage of them,” said Cooper. “We’ve been knocking at the door and it can get frustrating. It can make the summers, time-wise they’re so short, but mentality-wise they’re long. You just have to believe in your process and you have to believe in what you’re doing and you have to have players that jump on board.

“In the end, it’s a player’s game.”

The players celebrated this one together. The Lightning brought every extra skater they have here on the ice for this Eastern Conference Championships photo. There was Mathieu Joseph and his wonderful hair, Braydon Coburn and his thick playoff beard, Stamkos and his ever-present smile.

“Definitely a special moment for that group and then to get the whole team involved,” said veteran defenceman Ryan McDonagh. “Great moment.”

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Hedman is always the last player on the ice after a Tampa victory and had to wait out a four-question Killorn interview with NBC after they eliminated the Islanders. You could hear him banging his stick while Killorn spoke with Pierre McGuire inside this empty building.

He knew his teammates were celebrating without them but still wouldn’t skate off.

What a cool scene, all of it.

The Lightning will be back out here against the Dallas Stars in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night and they didn’t shy away from the fact they may have emptied a couple veins just to get the opportunity.

“As for gas in the tank, I guess we’ll see,” said Cooper. “This is unlike any other Stanley Cup Final where we’d get days rest. If you don’t go seven, you usually get days rest. We’re not here, but if you were going to tell me, ‘Hey Coop, you get to play in the Stanley Cup Final.

“You’re only going to get 45 hours to rest before the game but you’re going to get to play in it,’ I’m taking that all day.”

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