Regardless of the sport, it is rare to win back-to-back titles because it is very difficult. Injuries, selfishness, contract demands and the NHL salary cap often derail races for second titles.
However, the Tampa Bay Lightning are close to achieving an even more difficult goal of winning three Stanley Cups in a row. The two-time champions beat the Rangers 2-1 to win the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday before returning to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday in Denver.
No team has made three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals since the Edmonton Oilers under Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier in the mid-1980s, and the Islanders were the last team to win three consecutive Cups when they won four. titles in a row 40 years ago from 1980 to 1983.
The Lightning may not attract the attention of some clubs in the league’s major markets or its Canadian teams. They play in Tampa, Florida’s tourist hotspot, where a star named Tom Brady, the Buccaneers quarterback, draws most of the sports headlines.
But quiet and sympathetic Lightning built a dynasty under the guidance of coach John Cooper and their captain Stephen Stamkos, who became the basis of the team’s success. Now the 32-year-old center from suburban Toronto has spent his entire 14-year career in Tampa and helped him become a regular contender.
With 522 career goals, including playoffs, he’s second only to two guys named Ovechkin and Crosby among active players. He was also the link that helped rally his high-flying teammates, including his linemates Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. Tampa Bay players played together in 204 Stanley Cup Finals games, more than any other team.
Stamkos added to his stellar career when he scored two goals for the Lightning, including the winning goal at the end of Saturday’s third period, to finish off the Rangers.
“It’s great to score a couple of goals in a huge game like this, but if I didn’t score and we won, I’d be just as happy,” he said after the game.
Stamkos scored nine goals in the NHL playoffs, but the Lightning won the series convincingly, dominating the Rangers in almost every aspect of the game. Tampa Bay closed a two-game gap to win the last four games of the series, 12–5 ahead of the Rangers. The Lightning made several mistakes that kept the Rangers out of power play off the ice. The young Rangers, who made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, failed to score in equal strength in the last four games of the series.
On Saturday, the score and shots were deceptively close, and the statistics would have been more one-sided if not for the brilliant performance of Rangers goalkeeper Igor Shesterkin. The Lightning had many more quality scoring chances, and the Rangers, who won all five playoff knockout games, looked downcast after a disappointing loss in Game 5 in New York on Thursday.
While Shesterkin was desperate to keep the Rangers in the game, his counterpart, Tampa Bay goaltender Andrey Vasilevsky, was practically untested. He saved 20 shots and won his eighth consecutive clinch match, six of which were shutouts.
Tampa Bay won 11 consecutive playoff series, which Cooper attributed to the relentless drive of his players.
“No one would blame them,” he said if the players gave up. “Hey, you won one, you won two, and come back and go for the third.”
Lightning beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the first round, and thereafter defeated the Florida Panthers. The Rangers then crushed them in the first two games of the series in New York.
But the Lightning have shown why and how they continue to win championships. They found their footing when the series moved to Tampa, improved with every game and were a much sharper team on Saturday. They skated fast, made accurate passes and caught the wrong passes from the Rangers. They dominated the first period with 25 shots while the Rangers hit 12.
Shesterkin kept Tampa at bay, even cleaning up his mess. After Lightning’s Riley Nash intercepted a batting attempt, he stopped Patrick Maroon’s tip-off. He used a right pad to stop Pierre-Édouard Bellemare’s attempt at a clue and denied Anthony Cirelli a breakaway.
In the second period, Shesterkin robbed Tampa Bay’s leading scorer, Kucherov, when he tried to get the puck past him.
But after all of Shesterkin’s insane stoppages, Tampa Bay scored after Stamkos raced past an injured Ryan Strom and landed a wrist strike from the top of the circle.
The Rangers finally got their chance on a powerplay in the third period when Corey Perry hit Philip Chitil in the face with a stick. Tampa blocked all of the Rangers’ shots.
The Rangers finally scored on another power play when Stamkos was called on a hold and Frank Vatrano landed a throw-in shot that swept past Vasilevskiy.
Whatever momentum the Rangers had gained was gone after 21 seconds. Stamkos, coming out of the penalty area, rushed to the net, took Kucherov’s pass and hit the puck. Shesterkin intercepted it with a glove, but the puck ricocheted and Stamkos’ foot hit it into the net. After the review, the goal stood.
Tampa Bay will now face the Avalanche, who have had plenty of time to consider their next opponent. Almost a week ago, they finished off the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference Finals. They were the best team in the West in the regular season with 119 points and a playoff run of 12-2 so far, including victories over the Nashville Predators and Oilers.
Colorado conceded just 40 goals to Tampa’s 41, but the Avalanche scored significantly more often, leading all teams with 65 goals to the Lightning’s 52.
They are led by Nathan McKinnon, a fast, creative center and Defender Keil Makarwho Wayne Gretzky recently called the best two-way player since Bobby Orr.
This season, Colorado have won two games against Tampa Bay, each by a single goal. But maybe without Nazem Kadri and Andrew Colliano, both with finger injuries. It’s also unclear if goaltender Darcy Kemper will start the first game.
The Rangers will have all summer to heal injuries and think about how they missed a two-game lead against the reigning Stanley Cup champions. Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said the grueling schedule of 20 playoff games in 40 days had worn his club down.
The sting caused by ending the Stanley Cup too early will continue.
“I’m empty,” said Rangers center Mika Zibanejad, who then paused for a long time. “I don’t want this to end.”
Cooper, the Lightning’s coach, can’t believe this isn’t for his team.
“When you grow up in Canada, you always dream of having your name on the Stanley Cup,” he said. “And getting there for the first time, it was a dream. Going there for the second time next year was like a dream come true, as if we would never go back. And going a third time is unthinkable.”