Intimidation can mean different things to different players, depending on their job on the ice.
No skater wants to encounter hard-hitting Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak along the boards. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s mere presence in the net can alter the trajectory of a shot. Brayden Point skating with speed through the neutral zone with the puck on his stick will back off even the staunchest defenseman.
And there can’t be a more fearsome visage for a shooter than Ryan McDonagh in his line of sight.
The Lightning defenseman, stick in front of him, knees together, feet spread wide, seems to get bigger as he closes, taking away shooting lanes and obscuring the net. If a player does get off a shot, chances are McDonagh is going to put a body part in front of it — a skate, a leg, his side, something — and get the puck out of the zone.
He did it in the second period of Game 7, helping the Lightning build a one-goal lead before spending the rest of the night protecting it.
Shortly after blocking a Kyle Palmieri shot on the penalty kill, McDonagh intercepted a Palmieri pass in the Tampa Bay zone, patiently held the puck along the boards, then made a perfect outlet pass to Alex Killorn at center ice. Killorn passed to Anthony Cirelli, who skated to the right circle, circled back to buy time, then fed Yanni Gourde in the slot.
Gourde’s shorthanded goal was the eventual game-winner, returning the Lightning to the Stanley Cup final.
McDonagh didn’t get an assist on the play, but five of his teammates congratulated him on the bench afterward, recognizing that it doesn’t happen without his efforts. For the game, the former Rangers captain was officially credited with five blocks — though the television crew counted nine — two hits and two shots on goal in 22 minutes, 10 seconds of ice time.
Appropriately, McDonagh joined captain Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Alex Killorn to accept the Prince of Wales Trophy after the game.
There might not be a better player in the game in his own zone.
Here’s how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 7:
The Lightning seemed to have learned their lesson from the third period of Game 6, when they played too laidback and allowed the Islanders to spend the majority of time in their zone.
Tampa Bay came out flying in Game 7, playing with energy, bringing a ton of speed, taking hits when necessary to make a play and creating offensive opportunities, outshooting New York 15-5. Everything started with the forecheck, as the Lightning chipped pucks in deep, made the Islanders defenders play facing the end boards and pressured them into turnovers, resulting in more time in the offensive zone.
The forecheck of Cirelli’s line got things started, leading to two straight shifts in the Islanders zone, and the Lightning stayed there for most of the first two periods. New York pushed in the third, but Tampa Bay mostly kept the puck to the outside, giving up some zone time but not many quality chances.
That’s how you get to back-to-back Stanley Cup finals.
A league of his own
Andrei Vasilevskiy became the first goaltender in NHL history to record three series-clinching shutouts in the same postseason. If you include last season’s Cup final, he has closed out four straight postseason series without allowing a goal.
Vasilevskiy didn’t have to do a lot, facing only 18 shots, but he made the big saves when his team needed them, showing great extension to stop an Anthony Beauvillier breakaway with a right leg pad in the first period and kicking a Josh Bailey shot from the slot into the corner in the third.
He also had some good fortune, as Beauvillier hit the post from the side of the net early in the game and Mathew Barzal was unable to handle a bouncing puck with an open net in front of him in the closing minutes.
But when you’re as good as Vasilevskiy has been the past two postseasons, you make your own breaks.
Nikita Kucherov didn’t make it on to the scoresheet, but his mere presence on the ice provided a huge lift to the Lightning. Stamkos said he had never heard Tampa Bay fans crazier than when Kucherov stepped on to the ice for pregame warmups.
With the Islanders making contact with him at ever opportunity, Kucherov had two shots and delivered two hits in 16:29, trailing only Barclay Goodrow and Brayden Point among Lightning forwards.
Tampa Bay didn’t get a power-play opportunity, but Kucherov still created a few scoring chances, nearly connecting with Point on a backdoor pass, forcing Semyon Varlamov to make a blocker save on a shot from the left circle and tipping a shot through his legs that went wide of the net.
Stamkos called Kucherov, who missed most of Game 6 after taking a cross-check from Scott Mayfield, a “warrior” for simply playing in the game.
Good enough for me.
The Lightning’s bottom six forwards were their most effective, with the fourth line maybe most of all.
The third line of Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow played their usual tireless game, bringing energy, giving Tampa Bay the flexibility to match it against any line and generating offensive opportunities.
Gourde scored the only goal while on the penalty kill, and Goodrow beat the Islanders down the ice to a puck in the final minutes, preventing an icing call and keeping play deep in the New York zone as Tampa Bay was trying to close out the game while at a 6-on-5 disadvantage.
The fourth line of Tyler Johnson, Pat Maroon and Ross Colton was superb from start to finish, relentless on the forecheck, winning puck battles down low, controlling the pace of play and taking advantage of Johnson’s speed to create scoring opportunities.
Colton flattened Cal Clutterbuck in front of the Lightning bench in the first period, and Johnson might have had a couple of goals had a few bounces gone his way.
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