The Tampa Bay Lightning are heading to the Stanley Cup Finals for the third straight season, and the rewards begin again on the road against the Western Conference regular-season best team.
The way the two-time defending champions beat the New York Rangers 2-1 in Game 6 will help them when they face the Colorado Avalanche in Game 1 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
Captain Steven Stamkos scored twice, the second just 21 seconds after Rangers leveled the game in the third period.
“We don’t care how it’s done, it just has to be done,” he told reporters after the game. “I am very proud of this group. We’re going into the final again and have the chance to do something special.”
Stamkos opened the scoring in Saturday’s goalie battle when his wrist shot eluded a partially shielded Igor Shesterkin at 10:43 of the second period.
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Stamkos was in the box when New York’s Frank Vatrano equalized the game on the power play at 13:07 of the third period.
But Stamkos scored in a 2-on-1 break on the next shift when his shot ricocheted off his leg.
“Obviously I’m a little disappointed that I took the penalty,” he said. “You see how they score and you’re in the penalty area. It was weird. For some reason I wasn’t as upset in situations like this as I usually am. I was just confident that our group would find a way. if rule or overtime. We deserved to win tonight.”
Shesterkin complained, but the gate survived an inspection.
“It’s not the individuals,” Stamkos said. “It’s great to score a few goals in a game this big, but if I didn’t score and we won I’d be just as happy. … We know that everyone in our space plays a big part in our group’s success.”
Shesterkin, a finalist for the Vezina and Hart Trophies, made 28 saves as he failed in his attempt to go 6-0 in elimination games this postseason.
“I thought Igor was outstanding,” said Rangers coach Gerard Gallant. “He gave us chances to win every night and we had better chances in a lot of games but he was outstanding. He’s been our best player all year and has done it again in this series.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy made 20 saves and was helped by 17 blocked shots by defenders.
The fact that the Lightning have held the Rangers to a goal in each of their last three games bodes well for preparation for the high-flying Avalanche.
“It’s no secret that they have some electric players,” Stamkos said. “To be honest, they’re probably a team that we thought we’d play for the last couple of years. … Now they’ve broken through and they just have an incredible mix of veteran presence, star power, grinders, the goalie. A huge challenge for us.”
The Lightning are attempting to become the first team to win three straight Stanley Cups since the New York Islanders won four straight from 1980-83.
Despite not having home field advantage in the playoffs, the Lightning beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games, defeated the 1-seeded Florida Panthers, and beat the Rangers in six. They rebounded in the Eastern Conference Finals after losing their first two games, including 6-2 in Game 1 after a long layoff.
“We got better and better as the series went on and I think tonight might have been our best game overall,” said forward Alex Killorn.
Lightning’s Victor Hedman is temporarily leaving the game
Victor Hedman was taken out in the second half when Alexis Lafrenière caught him with a head check. The defender, who is a Norris Trophy finalist for the fifth consecutive season, grabbed his head and broke his stick as he returned to the bench.
Hedman rubbed his jaw as he sat on the bench and had to go to the dressing room, presumably because of a concussion.
But he returned in the third period and played a regular shift.
Rangers’ Kaapo Kakko a healthy scratch
Gallant had restricted the use of the Kid Line during the team’s Game 5 loss.
In Game 6, he exposed Kaapo Kakko and moved the other two members of Kid Line to other lines. Lafrenière started alongside Mika Zibanejad and Vatrano and Filip Chytil was in line with Chris Kreider and Barclay Goodrow, although the lines later changed.
Kakko, ranked No. 2 overall in 2019, has five points in 19 playoff games. Forward Brayden Hunt made his third appearance in his postseason and his first since the first round.
New York’s Ryan Strome, who has played through an injury, briefly skipped the warm-up but was dressed for the game. He didn’t play in the third period.
Lightning center Brayden Point, who was injured in the first round, sat out again despite skating.
“I don’t know how likely Game 1 is, but it’s very likely he’ll play in the series,” said coach Jon Cooper.