No matter the sport, winning back-to-back championships titles is rare because it’s so hard. Injuries, egos, contract demands and the NHL salary cap often derail second title runs.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, though, are close to accomplishing something even more difficult: Winning three Stanley Cups in a row. The two-time champions beat the Rangers, 2-1, to win the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday and will return to the Stanley Cup finals, where they will face the Colorado Avalanche starting Wednesday in Denver.
No team has been to three straight Stanley Cup finals since the Edmonton Oilers teams led by Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier in the mid-1980s, and the Islanders were the last team to win three straight Cups when they won four consecutive titles 40 years ago from 1980 to 1983.
The Lightning may not get the national attention of some of the clubs in the league’s bigger markets, or its Canadian teams. They play in Tampa, a Florida tourist destination where a star named Tom Brady, quarterback for the Buccaneers, grabs most of the sporting headlines.
But quietly and empathically the Lightning have built a dynasty under Coach Jon Cooper and their captain, Steven Stamkos, who has been the core of the team’s success. Now 32, the center from suburban Toronto has played his entire 14-year career in Tampa and helped build an also-ran into a perennial contender.
With 522 career goals, including playoffs, he trails only two guys named Ovechkin and Crosby among active players. He has also been the glue that has helped keep his high-flying teammates together, including his linemates, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. Tampa Bay’s players have combined to play in 204 Stanley Cup finals games, the most of any team.
Stamkos added to his stellar career when he scored the Lightning’s two goals, including the game-winner late in the third period Saturday, 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 would have been just as happy,” he said after the game.
Stamkos has scored nine goals so far in the NHL playoffs, but the Lightning won the series in convincing fashion by dominating the Rangers in nearly every facet of the game. Tampa Bay overcame a two-game deficit and won the last four games of the series, outscoring the Rangers, 12-5. The Lightning committed few errors, 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.
On Saturday, 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 quality 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 Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, was hardly tested. He stopped 20 shots and won his eighth consecutive clinching game, six of which were shutouts.
Tampa Bay has now won 11 straight playoff series, something Cooper attributed to the continued drive of his players.
“No one would fault them” if the players let up, he said. “Hey, you’ve won one, you won two, and to come back and go for a third.”
The Lightning beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the first round and swept the Florida Panthers after that. Then the Rangers broadsided 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 their footing when the series moved to Tampa, improved with each game and were the far sharper team on Saturday. They skated quickly, made crisp passes and scooped up errant passes by the Rangers. They dominated the first period, attempting 25 shots while the Rangers managed 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 Patrick Maroon. He used his right pad to stop a tip-in attempt by Pierre-Édouard Bellemare and denied Anthony Cirelli on a breakaway.
In the second period, Shesterkin robbed Kucherov, Tampa Bay’s top scorer, when he tried to backhand the puck past him.
But after all the frantic stops by Shesterkin, Tampa Bay scored after Stamkos raced past an injured Ryan Strome and fired a wrist shot from the top of the circle.
The Rangers finally had a power play chance in the third period when Corey Perry hit Filip Chytil 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 for holding and Frank Vatrano fired a shot off a face-off that skidded past Vasilevskiy.
Whatever momentum the Rangers gained 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 Bay 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 in 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.
Colorado has allowed just 40 goals to Tampa’s 41, but the Avalanche score considerably more often, leading all teams with 65 goals to the Lightning’s 52.
They are led by Nathan MacKinnon, the fast, creative center, and defenseman Cale Makar, whom Wayne Gretzky recently called the best two-way player since Bobby Orr.
Colorado won its two games against Tampa Bay this season, by one goal each time. But it may be without Nazem Kadri and Andrew Cogliano, both who have injured fingers. It is also unclear whether goalie Darcy Kuemper will start Game 1.
The Rangers will have all summer to heal their injuries and think about how they blew a two-game lead against the defending Stanley Cup champions. Gerard Gallant, the Rangers’ coach, said a grueling schedule – 20 playoff games in 40 days – wore down his club.
The sting of a Stanley Cup run ending too soon will endure.
“I’m empty,” said Rangers center Mika Zibanejad, who then paused a long time. “I don’t want it to be over.”
Cooper, the Lightning coach, can’t believe it is not for his team.
“When you’re growing up in Canada, you always dream about having your name on the Stanley Cup,” he said. “And to get there the first time, it was a dream come true. To get there a second time the next year was like a dream, like there’s no way we’re going back. And to go a third time is unthinkable. ”