TAMPA — When Steven Stamkos emerged from the penalty box following the Rangers’ tying goal with 6:53 left in the third period, he wasn’t frustrated or rattled, as he typically might be in a similar situation.
The Rangers suddenly had life in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final, breaking through with a Frank Vatrano power-play goal that evened the score at 1. But there was no concern on the part of Stamkos.
“I think I was just confident in our group that we’d find a way to win, whether it was in regulation or was in overtime,” Stamkos said. “We deserved to win the game. And that was the feeling that we had from puck drop to in between the intermissions. Just keep going and our will is going to take over.”
Twenty-one seconds after the New York forward scored, Stamkos had the game on his stick after being fed a pass from Nikita Kucherov on a 2-on-1 breakaway. He beat goalie Igor Shesterkin for the winner in the Lightning’s 2-1 victory that clinched the series and put them in the Stanley Cup final for the third straight year.
To win a third straight Cup, the Lightning must beat the Western Conference champion Avalanche starting Wednesday in Denver.
No team has won three straight Cups since the Islanders won four straight from 1980-83.
The Lightning are the first team to advance to three straight Stanley Cup finals since the Oilers from 1983-85.
Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who stopped 20 of 21 shots, has allowed just two goals in his last eight series-clinching games.
The Rangers were the Lightning’s toughest test yet this postseason, and coach Jon Cooper said New York coach Gerard Gallant one day will be going to the Cup final, in part because of Shesterkin, who kept the Rangers in Game 6 with a fantastic performance that Cooper said reminded him of Vasilevskiy.
The Lightning trailed two games to none in the series, but they trusted in the plan that has won them two straight Cups, one based on playing defensive-minded hockey, executing on the forecheck, protecting the puck and dictating the pace of the game with sustained offensive-zone time.
“As the series progressed, we got better and better, and I think (Saturday) may have been our best game overall,” forward Alex Killorn said. “And I think that’s important in a Stanley Cup run. It’s typically the team that improves the most throughout the run typically ends up winning, I find.”
What the Lightning call “the recipe” for their success includes the belief that each player has an important role in winning. The recipe has been years in the making, rooted from learning from tough playoff losses and a belief that the franchise’s core group could break through.
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“Trust, that’s the word,” Stamkos said. “We trust every guy that goes over that board to do his job, whether you score a goal or not. It’s the little things that you do. It’s the defending, it’s the blocked shots, it’s the sacrifice, it’s not complaining about your role. It’s just going out and just playing as hard as you can for the next guy that sits beside you in that locker room, and that’s why this group is so special.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen here in the next 10 to 14 days, but we know we’re going to give it our all, and it’s gotten us this far.”
Stamkos, the longtime face of the franchise, came through as the hero of Game 6.
“To answer back 21 seconds after they score, you’re so proud, and you’re proud that ‘Stammer’ got to do it,” Cooper said. “And he’ll be the first one to push the accolades to everybody else. But he had a hell of a series, and I think it paid off in Game 6, and (I’m) just happy for him and his legacy as the captain of this team.”
Stamkos scored the first goal of the game with 9:17 left in the second period, rifling a wrist shot from above the right circle that darted past Shesterkin far post past his blocker side.
Shesterkin kept the Rangers in the game with some dynamic stops throughout the night. He finished with 29 saves.
Killorn had an up-close charge on Shesterkin late in the second that was denied, and Kucherov also was robbed by Shesterkin in the period.
In the final moments of the first period, forward Brandon Hagel sprung forward Anthony Cirelli for an open look along the right post, but Cirelli couldn’t push the puck above Shesterkin’s left pad.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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