Back-to-back championship titles are rare in any sport. Second title runs are often derailed by injuries, egos, and contract demands.
In the N.H.L., winning three Stanley Cups in a row hasn’t been done for nearly 40 years. The Tampa Bay Lightning are one step away from what’s even harder: winning three straight Cups.
Lightning defeated Rangers 2-1 in Eastern Conference Finals and will face Avalanche in Stanley Cup Finals starting Wednesday in Denver.
The game-winning goal came late in the third period, with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos scoring both goals.
Overcoming a two-game deficit and winning the last four games of the series outscoring the Rangers 12-5, the Lightning won the series convincingly.
Despite the Rangers’ number one power play, the Lightning committed few errors to keep them from scoring.
Despite being in the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, the Rangers were unable to score at even strength in the last four games.
As his teammates celebrated around him after the game, Stamkos said, “We know we didn’t play our best the first two.”. “They executed well, we didn’t.”
But, he said, “these guys aren’t panicking.”. Winning a championship is difficult. Our team knows what it takes.
Despite the deceptively close score and shots on goal, Rangers’ goalie Igor Shesterkin made a great save that would have led to more lopsided statistics.
After a disheartening loss in Game 5 in New York that saw the Rangers win all five elimination games in the playoffs, the Lightning had far more quality scoring chances.
Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy barely faced any challenges as Shesterkin desperately tried to keep the Rangers in the game.
In his eight straight clinching games, he also posted six shutouts.
As of now, Tampa has won 11 consecutive playoff series.
Despite not having lost four straight games all season, Gerard Gallant attempted to jump-start the Rangers’ offense, which had gone three games without scoring an even-strength goal.
Alexis Lafrenière was moved to the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Frank Vatrano, while Chris Kreider was placed on the second line with Barclay Goodrow and Filip Chytil.
Kreider was moved back to the top line after the Rangers struggled to score in the first period.
It didn’t accomplish much. From start to finish, the Lightning had the edge.
As the Rangers threw errant passes, they skated quickly and made sharp passes.
While the Rangers attempted only 12 shots in the first period, they peppered Shesterkin with 25 attempts.
Sterkin kept Tampa at bay by cleaning his own mess.
When Riley Nash intercepted a puck clearance attempt by his teammate Patrick Maroon, he stopped a tip-in attempt by the Lightning.
He denied Anthony Cirelli on a breakaway with his right pad after stopping Pierre-Édouard Bellemare’s tip-in.
Towards the end of the first period, the Rangers came to life. However, it was a brief flourish in a rather dull performance.
Ryan Strome wasn’t helpful to the Rangers, who played injured.
Similarly to the first period, the second began with Tampa on the offensive and Shesterkin keeping the puck out of the net.
During a backhand pass attempt, Nikita Kucherov, Tampa’s top scorer, was denied the puck.
As the puck flew past Corey Perry of the Lightning, Jacob Trouba leveled him. There was no penalty.
After a scrum in front of Vasilevskiy, Kevin Rooney and Mikhail Sergachev of the Rangers were sent off with minor penalties.
Stamkos raced past Strome and fired a wrist shot from the top of the circle after all the great stops by Shesterkin. That was his eighth playoff goal.
Corey Perry hit Chytil in the face with a stick in the third period to give the Rangers a power-play chance.
In spite of several shots, the Rangers were all blocked.
A second Rangers power play ended in a Rangers goal when Stamkos was called for holding and Vatrano hit the post on a shot that skipped past Vasilevskiy.
He had scored twice in the series and five times in the playoffs.
21 seconds later, any momentum the Rangers had was gone. Taking a pass from Kucherov, Stamkos shot the puck as he exited the penalty box.
Stamkos’ leg bumped the puck into the net after Shesterkin grabbed it with his glove. Review upheld.
The Lightning will face the Avalanche next, who have had ample time to think about their next opponent. In the Western Conference finals, they beat the Edmonton Oilers nearly a week ago.
They finished the regular season as the best team in the West with 119 points, and so far, they have been unbeaten by the Predators and Oilers in the playoffs.
This season, they beat Tampa twice.
During the summer, no doubt, the Rangers will be reflecting on how they blew a two-game lead in the Eastern Conference finals against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Still, there are a number of reasons for optimism.
For the first time in seven years, the Rangers had 110 points during the regular season.
Rangers also have young talent such as Lafrenière, Chytil, Adam Fox, as well as seasoned vets like Kreider, who had 52 goals, and Zibanejad.