The Tampa Bay Lightning became the first NHL team since 1985 to reach three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals after they defeated the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Saturday. The discourse surrounding the Lightning will center around their winning attitude and killer instinct ahead of their showdown with the Colorado Avalanche beginning on Wednesday night in Denver.
The subjective idea of a championship attitude in professional sports typically becomes a popular topic of discussion when experienced teams with considerable pedigrees continue to succeed. The Lightning provided substance to the concept with four critical, backbreaking goals that demoralized their opponents at key points during close games in the final minutes of regulation during the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
Colton Stuns Panthers
The Florida Panthers entered the second round with a newfound swagger and confidence against their more established cross-state rival who had eliminated them from the 2021 Playoffs. They fended off a tough Washington Capitals team after nearly falling down 3-1 in the series. A missed opportunity by Washington to put the Panthers in a 3-1 hole in Game 4 left the door open for the Presidents’ Trophy champions to gain momentum.
The momentum helped the Panthers feel they finally had the team to compete against the Lightning. Even after a 4-1 Lightning victory in Game 1, the series still looked like it would be tightly contested. With the score tied 1-1 in the final minute of Game 2, Ross Colton reminded the Panthers that one simple mistake could be detrimental against the back-to-back champions. MacKenzie Weegar overaggressively pursued Nikita Kucherov as the clock wound down in the third period and allowed him to set up Colton for a dramatic game-winner with just 3.8 seconds left on the clock.
The crowd in Sunrise, FL fell silent while the Lightning took a 2-0 series lead back to Tampa Bay. Although nobody had clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference Final yet, the Panthers lost the confidence built from their best regular season in franchise history in the blink of an eye. Andrei Vasilevskiy made things look easy in two home victories to close out the series in 5-1 and 2-0 wins.
Kucherov to Palat in Game 3 Turning Point
The Rangers put the defending champions on the ropes early in the Eastern Conference Final. They jumped out to a 2-0 series lead with two victories at Madison Square Garden behind the excellent goaltending of Igor Shesterkin. When the series shifted to Tampa, they took a commanding 2-0 lead during the second period of Game 3 on power-play goals by Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.
Steven Stamkos spoke on ESPN after the series about facing the deficit. “We stuck with it. There’s no panic on this team,” said the long-time Lightning captain.
Power-play goals by the usual suspects, Stamkos and Kucherov, quickly erased the New York lead, and the game’s first even-strength goal in the final minute of regulation reminded the Rangers exactly who they were up against. Kucherov made an outstanding backhand pass to Ondrej Palat for the game-winner with just 41 seconds left. Although the Lightning still sat in 2-1 hole, the sense of a sleeping giant awoken from a down performance early in the series quickly set in.
Sergachev, Palat Stun Madison Square Garden
Head coach Jon Cooper and the Lightning confidently took control of the series with another victory in Game 4. The championship mentality was in full force, but the Rangers still owned the advantage of potentially playing two of the final three games of the series on home ice. After the Pittsburgh Penguins dealt them a loss at Madison Square Garden in triple overtime of their first game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Rangers had won eight straight home games.
The New York crowd roared throughout a tightly-contested Game 5, but the energy wasn’t enough to help the Rangers fend off the might of the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. Mikhail Sergachev, who scored Tampa’s first goal of the game on a similar play, flicked a wrister from the point that deflected off Palat and put Tampa up 2-1 with just 1:50 remaining in regulation.
The home crowd watched in disbelief as the excitement of a hard-checking, bitter scrap tied in the final minutes suddenly turned into another defeat at the hands of a seemingly insurmountable opponent. They knew they had just suffered the series backbreaker on their own home ice. The Lightning joined the 1995 New Jersey Devils as the only other team with three game-winning goals within the final two minutes of regulation in a single postseason.
Stamkos Responds to Vatrano in Game 6
The Rangers could’ve gotten used to demoralizing defeats and collapsed in Game 6 in Tampa, but they fought admirably at all points of the series. Dating back to the 2020 Playoffs in the bubble against the Dallas Stars, Vasilevkiy had recorded shutouts in six of seven series-clinching victories. His only “hiccup” was stopping 30 of 31 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 on May 14.
The Lightning held a 1-0 lead in the third period of Game 6 at home with Vasilevskiy’s overwhelming championship track record playing to their advantage. Frank Vatrano, however, scored the equalizer on the power play with just 6:53 left in regulation. The Rangers had no plans of going down quietly.
However, the resilience they showed against the intimidation of Vasilevskiy bought them 21 seconds with a tie score before Stamkos put the Lightning back up 2-1 with the help of beautiful puck movement up ice from Palat and Kucherov. The response provided another example of how improbable it is for an opponent to overcome every strength of the Lightning roster simultaneously for a series victory. Even when the Rangers finally solved the league’s most successful goaltender playing at the peak of his game, Tampa’s offensive firepower took one shift to erase the momentous achievement.
The Lightning will square up with the high-powered Avalanche for the Stanley Cup to cap off a tremendous postseason. During the series, viewers will hear about the championship mentality that helped Tampa gain the opportunity for a three-peat. While it’s typically hard to put substance behind that type of idea, the Lightning have personified it this postseason with an incredible ability to frustrate opponents with backbreaking goals at the most critical moments.
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Colin Newby is a freelance writer from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the “Legion of Doom” and Claude Giroux to forgotten journeymen like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. He joined the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA) in 2022.
Colin also covers the Philadelphia Eagles and works for 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia.