TAMPA — With the Lightning facing playoff elimination Friday night, their mission of becoming just the second team in the salary cap era to win back-to-back Stanley Cups was in danger of falling short.
They hadn’t been in an elimination position before in these playoffs. But with their season on the line, the reigning Cup champions continued their run of perfection in rebounding from a postseason loss, beating the Islanders 1-0 in Game 7 of their league semifinal series at Amalie Arena.
The Lightning play the Canadiens in the Cup final, which begins Monday night at Amalie Arena.
Last year’s Eastern Conference final win over the Islanders came with no fans present in the Edmonton bubble. On Friday night, the Lightning were able to celebrate this trip to the Cup final with 14,805 fans at Amalie Arena as they ended their night carrying off the Prince of Wales Trophy.
In winning their previous six playoff series going back to last season, the Lightning had closed out their opponent in six games or fewer. They ended up in this Game 7 after losing Game 6 in overtime 3-2 after blowing a 2-0 lead.
On Friday night, the Lightning played their most stingy game of the postseason. Now, dating to the beginning of last year’s playoff run, the Lightning are 13-0 when coming off a loss.
“It’s so damn hard to win in this league,” coach Jon Cooper said. “But last year, we found that we can win in different ways. In the end, just the warrior mentality this group had, it was prevalent (Friday). After a really tough loss the other night (in Game 6), you just can’t count them out.
“Again another masterful performance in the defensive zone to win a huge Game 7 for us.”
This group has talked a lot about how it became a championship team when deciding to buy in on defense, and that was on display in Game 7. All the Lightning needed was a second-period shorthanded goal from forward Yanni Gourde.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 18 shots and set an NHL record by recording a shutout in his fourth straight playoff-series-clinching game.
“He’s the best in the world for a reason,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “He’s the steady rock that allows us to go out there and play with pace, play with confidence, play with the lead, and I thought we did an unbelievable job of that.”
Clearly still feeling the effects of a cross-check on his first shift of Game 6 that forced him from the game, star forward Nikita Kucherov returned, and despite having to manage an injury, just his presence was valuable.
Kucherov clearly was fighting off discomfort throughout the game. On the bench, he fidgeted while trying to sit on a wooden bar stool. During commercial breaks, he went onto the ice to get extra skating time to try to loosen up. He logged 16:29 of ice time and had six shot attempts.
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“There was no question if I’m going to play or not,” Kucherov said. “I felt good. It’s a Game 7. You’ve got to sacrifice yourself and play in those moments.”
After seeing talented Lightning teams of the past come up short in the postseason, the Lightning last year bought into the idea that championships are won by playing disciplined defense that leads to offense. On Friday night, the game’s only goal was a result of strong play in the defensive end.
After Lightning forward Barclay Goodrow was called for cross-checking 50 seconds into the second period, the Lightning got two big blocked shots in the first minute of the penalty kill from defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak.
After Cernak’s block, McDonagh held the puck deep in the Lightning zone, then hit Alex Killorn with it in the neutral zone. Killorn sent a touch pass to a trailing Anthony Cirelli, who calmly took the puck into Islanders zone and curled back along the far wall, drawing three Islanders his way.
Gourde came off the bench on a line change, charged to the net, took a feed from Cirelli in the right corner and buried a wrist shot over Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov’s left shoulder.
“That goal doesn’t (happen) if those guys don’t go down and block those shots,” Gourde said. “(McDonagh) got the puck, he was real patient made and a great pass.”
The Lightning came out strong out of the gate and through two periods dominated the Islanders in offensive zone time and outshot them 27-11.
The Islanders mounted a push in the third period. The Lightning fought off one final flurry from the Islanders after New York pulled Varlamov in the final minutes, but Tampa Bay had five of their 21 blocked shots in the final 2:26.
“I think we attempted 50 shots (overall), somewhere in that range, and they had 21 blocks,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “They’re a good defensive team. I think they’re a better team now than they were last year, and we took them to the brink because I think we’re a better team as well.”
First Period—None. Penalties—None.
Second Period—1, Tampa Bay, Gourde 5 (Killorn, Cirelli), 1:49 (sh). Penalties—Goodrow, TB (Cross Checking), 0:50.
Third Period—None. Penalties—None.
Shots on Goal—N.Y. Islanders 5-6-7_18. Tampa Bay 15-12-4_31. Power-play opportunities—N.Y. Islanders 0 of 1; Tampa Bay 0 of 0. Goalies—N.Y. Islanders, Varlamov 7-7-0 (31 shots-30 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 12-6-0 (18-18). A—14,805 (19,092). T—2:13. Referees—Francis Charron, Gord Dwyer. Linesmen—Scott Cherrey, Michel Cormier.
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