Regardless of the sport, winning back-to-back championship titles is rare because it is so hard. Injuries, vanities, contract requirements, and the NHL’s salary cap often derail the Title II run.
However, the Tampa Bay Lightning is on the verge of achieving something even more difficult: winning three Stanley Cups in a row. The two-time champions beat Rangers 2-1 to win the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday and will return to the Stanley Cup Finals where they face the Colorado Avalanche starting Wednesday in Denver.
No team has attended three 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 consecutive Cups when they won four consecutive titles 40 years ago from 1980 to 1984.
Lightning may not get the national attention of some clubs in the league’s major 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 sports news headlines.
But calmly and sympathetically to the lightning dynasty built Under the leadership of coach John Cooper and captain Stephen Stamkos, who has been the core of the team’s success. Now 32, the center from suburban Toronto played his 14-year career in Tampa and helped build an enduring competitor.
With 522 career goals, including playoffs, only two players named Ovechkin and Crosby track among the active players. He’s also been the glue that has helped keep his high-flying teammates together, including buddies Nikita Kucherov and Ondrij Balat. The Tampa Bay roster features players totaling 204 playoff games, the most of any other team.
Stamkos added to his stellar career when he scored two Lightning goals, including a match-winner late in the third half on Saturday, to finish off Rangers.
“It’s great to score two goals in such a huge match, but if I hadn’t scored and won, I would have been just as happy,” he said after the match.
Stamkos has scored nine goals so far in the NHL playoffs, but Lightning won the series in convincing fashion by dominating Rangers in nearly every aspect of the game. Tampa Bay overcame its two-game deficit and won the last four games of the series, outpacing Rangers, 12-5. The lightning made quite a few mistakes, keeping the higher ranked Power Rangers away from the ice. The young Rangers, in the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, failed to score with the same intensity in the last four games of the series.
On Saturday, the score and shots on goal were deceptively close, and the stats would have been even more unbalanced had it not been for the outstanding play of Rangers goalkeeper Igor Shesterkin. Lightning had more goalscoring chances, and the Rangers, who won all five elimination matches during the playoffs, looked deflated after a disappointing fifth game loss in New York on Thursday.
While Shesterkin desperately tried to keep Rangers in the game, his counterpart, Tampa Bay goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevsky, was not tested. He stopped 20 shots and won his eighth straight fight, six of which were shots.
Tampa Bay has now won 11 consecutive playoff streaks, something Cooper credits with continuing his players.
“No one will miss them” if the players give up, he said. “Hey, I won one, I won two, and I come back and go for the third.”
lightning Beat the Toronto Maple Leafs In seven first-round games the Florida Panthers swept afterwards. The Rangers then expanded them in the first two games of the series in New York.
But the Lightning showed why and how they keep winning trophies. They found their footing when the series moved to Tampa, improved with every game and they were the sharpest team on Saturday. They skated fast, made clear passes and got wrong passes by Rangers. They dominated the first half, attempting 25 shots while Rangers managed 12.
Chesterkin held Tampa away, even cleaning up his own mess. After Lightning’s Riley Nash intercepted an attempt to remove the disc, Patrick Maron’s advice was stopped. He used his right lot to stop an attempt to provide information from Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and banished Anthony Cirelli from the Secession.
In the second period, Shesterkin robbed Kucherov, Tampa Bay’s leading scorer, when he tried to hit the back ball in front of him.
But after all the frantic stops by Shesterkin, Tampa Bay scored after injured Stamkos got past Ryan Strom and fired a wrist shot from the top of the circuit.
Rangers finally got a chance to play power in the third period when Corey Berry hit Philip Chettle in the face with a stick. Tampa blocked all of the Rangers’ shots.
The Rangers finally scored in another power game when Stamkos was called in to catch him and Frank Vatrano fired a shot from an encounter that bypassed Vasilevsky.
Whatever momentum the Rangers had, it was gone after 21 seconds. Stamkos exited the penalty area and walked towards the net, took a pass from Kucherov and shot the puck. Shesterkin grabbed her with his glove, but the disc bounced out and Stamkos’ leg hit the net. After revision, the target was discontinued.
Now, Tampa Bay would be facing an avalanche, who had plenty of time to think about their next opponent. The Edmonton Oilers finished in the Western Conference Finals nearly a week ago. They were the West’s best team in the regular season with 119 points, and are 12-2 so far in the playoffs, including a sweep of the Nashville Predators and Oilers.
Colorado only allowed 40 goals to 41 in Tampa, but Avalanche scores more often, leading all teams with 65 goals to 52 in Lightning’s.
They are led by Nathan McKinnon, Creative Center Rapid, and Defenseman Cal Makarwho was recently described by Wayne Gretzky as the best two-way player since Bobby Orr.
Colorado has won its two games against Tampa Bay this season, one goal at a time. But may be without Nazem Kadri and Andrew Cogliano, both of them injured their fingers. It is also unclear if goalkeeper Darcy Comber will start the first game.
Rangers will have all summer to treat their injuries and reflect on how they progress in two games against the Stanley Cup holders. Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said a grueling schedule – 20 playoffs in 40 days – has weakened his club.
The sting of the Stanley Cup race that ends very soon will continue.
“I’m empty,” said Rangers’ Mika Zibanijad, then paused for a long time. “I don’t want it to end.”
Cooper, the Lightning coach, can’t believe he’s not for his team.
“When you grow up in Canada, you always dream of putting your name in the Stanley Cup,” he said. “And getting there the first time, it was a dream come true. Getting there again the following year was a dream, as if there was no going back. Going for the third time is unimaginable.”
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