Regardless of the sport, winning back-to-back league titles is rare because it’s so hard. Injuries, egos, contract demands and the NHL’s salary cap often derail second title runs.
However, the Tampa Bay Lightning are on the verge of achieving something even more difficult: winning three straight Stanley Cups. The two-time champions beat Rangers 2-1 to win the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday and return to the Stanley Cup Finals where they meet the Colorado Avalanche in Denver starting Wednesday.
No team has been to the consecutive Stanley Cup Finals since the Edmonton Oilers, led by Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, in the mid-1980s, and the Islanders were the last team to win three straight trophies when they won four 40 years ago Consecutive titles won 1980 to 1984.
The Lightning may not catch the national attention of some clubs in the league’s larger markets or their Canadian teams. They play in Tampa, a tourist destination in Florida where a star named Tom Brady, quarterback for the Buccaneers, makes most of the sporting headlines.
But quiet and empathetic, the Lightning built a dynasty under coach Jon Cooper and their captain Steven Stamkos, who was at the core of the team’s success. The 32-year-old center from suburban Toronto has played his entire 14-year career in Tampa and helped build an all-time favorite.
His 522 career goals, including playoffs, rank behind only two guys named Ovechkin and Crosby among active players. He was also the glue that helped hold his high-flying teammates together, including linemates Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. Tampa Bay’s roster includes players with a total of 204 playoff games, the most of any team.
Stamkos contributed to his stellar career as he scored the Lightning’s two goals, including the decisive one late in Saturday’s third period to finish off Rangers.
“It’s great to score a few goals in such a big game, but if I hadn’t scored and we’d won I would have been just as happy,” he said after the game.
Stamkos has nine goals so far in the NHL playoffs, but the Lightning won the series in convincing fashion, dominating the Rangers in almost every facet of the game. Overcoming a two-game deficit, Tampa Bay won the last four games of the series, beating the Rangers 12-5. The Lightning had few errors, keeping Rangers’ top power play off the ice. The young Rangers, making the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, have not been able to score with equal strength in the last four games of the series.
Scores and shots on goal were deceptively close on Saturday and the stats would have been more one-sided had it not been for a brilliant game from Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin. The Lightning had far more high-quality scoring chances and the Rangers, who had won all five playoff elimination games, looked sobered after a disheartening loss in Thursday’s Game 5 in New York.
While Shesterkin desperately tried to keep the Rangers in the game, his counterpart, Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, was barely tested. He stopped 20 shots and won his eighth straight game, six of which were shutouts.
Tampa Bay has now won 11 straight playoff series, which Cooper attributed to the continued dedication of its players.
“Nobody would blame them” if the players slacked off, he said. “Hey, you won one, you won two, and come back and go for a third.”
The Lightning beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the first round and then defeated the Florida Panthers. Then Rangers spawned them in the first two games of the series in New York.
But the Lightning showed why and how they keep winning championships. They found footing when the series moved to Tampa, improving with every game and being the far sharper team on Saturday. They ran fast, played crisp passes and got bad passes from Rangers. They dominated the first period, attempting 25 shots while Rangers managed 12.
Shesterkin kept Tampa in check and even cleaned up his own mess. After an attempt to clear the puck was intercepted by Riley Nash of the Lightning, he stopped a Patrick Maroon tip-in. He used his right pad to stop a tip-in attempt by Pierre-Édouard Bellemare and prevented Anthony Cirelli’s escape attempt.
In the second half, Shesterkin robbed Kucherov, Tampa Bay’s top scorer, when he tried to backhand the puck past him.
But after all of Shesterkin’s frantic stops, Tampa Bay scored after Stamkos sped past an injured Ryan Strome and fired a wrist shot from the top of the circle.
Rangers finally had a power play opportunity in the third period when Corey Perry hit Filip Chytil in the face with a stick. Tampa blocked all of the Rangers’ shots.
Rangers eventually made another power play when Stamkos was called to a halt and Frank Vatrano fired a shot after a faceoff that skidded past Vasilevskiy.
Whatever momentum Rangers had gained was gone 21 seconds later. Stamkos, coming out of the penalty area, raced towards the net, took a pass from Kucherov and shot the puck. Shesterkin grabbed it with his glove, but the puck bounced and Stamkos’ leg slammed into the net. After a review, the goal was set.
Now Tampa Bay meets the Avalanche, who have had plenty of time to think about their next opponent. They defeated the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference Finals almost a week ago. They were the top team in the West in the regular season with 119 points and are 12-2 in the playoffs so far, including wins against the Nashville Predators and Oilers.
Colorado only allowed 40 goals to Tampa’s 41, but the Avalanche are scoring significantly more often and leading all teams to the Lightnings’ 52 by 65 goals.
Leading them are Nathan MacKinnon, the fast, creative center, and defenseman Cale Makar, whom Wayne Gretzky recently dubbed the best two-wayer since Bobby Orr.
Colorado won its two games against Tampa Bay this season by a margin of one goal each. But it could be without Nazem Kadri and Andrew Cogliano, who both have finger injuries. It is also unclear whether goalie Darcy Kuemper will start in game 1.
The Rangers have all summer to heal from their injuries and reflect on how they gambled away a two-game lead against the defending Stanley Cup champions. Rangers manager Gerard Gallant said a grueling schedule – 20 playoff games in 40 days – had worn his club down.
The sting of a Stanley Cup run that ends too soon will last.
“I’m empty,” said Rangers center Mika Zibanejad, who then paused for a long time. “I don’t want it to be over.”
Cooper, Lightning’s coach, can’t believe it’s not for his team.
“Growing up in Canada, your dream is always to have your name in the Stanley Cup,” he said. “And getting there for the first time was a dream come true. Going there a second time next year was like a dream, like we’re not going back. And going a third time is unthinkable.”