No matter the sport, winning back-to-back championships titles is rare because it’s so hard. Injuries, egos, contract demands and the salary cap often derail second title runs.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, though, is one step away from something even harder: winning three Stanley Cups in a row, something that hasn’t been accomplished in the NHL in nearly four decades.
On Saturday, the two-time champion Lightning beat the New York Rangers, 2-1, to win the Eastern Conference finals and return to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they will face the Colorado Avalanche starting Wednesday in Denver. Tampa’s longtime captain Steven Stamkos scored both Lightning goals, with the game-winner coming late in the third period.
The Lightning won the series in convincing fashion, dominating the Rangers in the clinching game, overcoming a two-game deficit and winning the last four games of the series outscoring the Rangers 12-5. The Lightning and their seasoned veterans committed few mistakes, which kept the Rangers’ top-ranked power play off the ice. The young Rangers, in the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, failed to score at even strength in the last four games of the series. “We know we didn’t play our best the first two,” Stamkos said after the game as his teammates celebrated around him on home ice. “They were executing, we weren’t.”
But, he said, “there’s no panic with this team. The hardest thing to do is to win a championship. We know what it takes. ”
The score and the shots on goal were deceivingly close, and the statistics would have been more lopsided if not for the brilliant play of Rangers’ goalie Igor Shesterkin. The Lightning had far more scoring chances, and the Rangers, who had won all five elimination games during the playoffs, looked deflated after a disheartening loss in Game 5 in New York on Thursday.
While Shesterkin desperately tried to keep the Rangers in the game, his counterpart, Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, was hardly tested. He won his eight consecutive clinching game, including six shutouts.
Tampa has now won 11 straight playoff series.
The Rangers had not lost four games in a row all season, so after three straight losses to the Lightning in the series, Rangers coach Gerard Gallant tried to jump start the Rangers’ offense, which had not scored an even-strength goal since the second game of the series.
He moved Alexis Lafrenière to the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Frank Vatrano and moved Chris Kreider to the second line with Barclay Goodrow and Filip Chytil. After the Rangers failed to muster much offense in the first period, he moved Kreider back to the top line.
It did little good. The Lightning were the far sharper team from start the game to the finish. They skated quickly, made sharp passes and scooped up errant passes by the Rangers. They peppered Shesterkin and attempted 25 shots in the first period while the Rangers made only 12.
Shesterkin held Tampa at bay, even cleaning up his own mess. After an attempt to clear the puck was intercepted by Riley Nash of the Lightning, he stopped a tip-in by his teammate Patrick Maroon. He used his right pad to stop a tip-in attempt by Pierre-Édouard Bellemare and denied Anthony Cirelli on a breakaway.
The Rangers came alive toward the end of the first period. But it was a brief flourish in an otherwise lethargic effort. The Rangers were not helped by center Ryan Strome, who played injured and was a liability.
The second period started the same as the first, with Tampa on the offensive and Shesterkin keeping the puck out of the net. He robbed Nikita Kucherov, Tampa’s top scorer, when he tried to backhand the puck past him.
The Rangers came alive when defenseman Jacob Trouba leveled Corey Perry of the Lightning on the open ice as the puck flew past. No penalty for interference was called.
Kevin Rooney of the Rangers and Mikhail Sergachev of the Lightning were sent off with minor penalties after a scrum in front of Vasilevskiy.
After all the great stops by Shesterkin, Tampa finally scored when Stamkos raced past an injured Strome and fired a wrist shot from the top of the circle. It was Stamkos’s eighth goal of the playoffs.
The Rangers finally had a power play chance in the third period when Corey Perry hit Chytil in the face with a stick. The Rangers mustered several shots, but they were all blocked.
The Rangers finally scored on another power play when Stamkos was called for holding and Vatrano fired a shot off a face-off that skidded past Vasilevskiy. It was his second of the series and fifth of the playoffs.
Whatever momentum the Rangers mustered vanished 21 seconds later. Stamkos, coming out of the penalty box, raced toward the net, took a pass from Kucherov and shot the puck. Shesterkin grabbed it with his glove, but the puck ricocheted out and Stamkos’s leg bumped it into the net. After a review, the goal stood.
Now Tampa will face the Avalanche, who have had plenty of time to contemplate their next opponent. They finished off the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference finals nearly a week ago. They were the best team in the West the regular season with 119 points, and they’re 12-2 so far in the playoffs, including sweeps of the Nashville Predators and the Oilers.
They won their two games against Tampa this season.
The Rangers no doubt will spend the summer thinking about how they blew a two-game lead in the Eastern Conference finals against the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. But they have many reasons for optimism. With 110 points during the regular season, the Rangers had their best total point in seven years.
The Rangers also have one of the youngest teams in the league and a solid core of emerging stars, including Lafrenière, Chytil and defenseman Adam Fox, as well as seasoned veterans like Kreider, who had a career-high 52 goals, and his linemate, Zibanejad.