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Lightning fight through banged-up blue line to beat Rangers

Notes | Also, Tampa Bay’s second line of Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Brandon Hagel comes up huge in victory over New York.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak checks his face after being hit during the second period Saturday at Amalie Arena.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak checks his face after being hit during the second period Saturday at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 12|Updated Jun. 12

TAMPA — The Lightning didn’t pull out the healthiest win over New York in Saturday’s Eastern Conference final clincher.

Tampa Bay briefly lost a pair of defensemen, with Victor Hedman missing for about half of the second period and Erik Cernak out about 10 minutes in the third.

“It’s just that kind of warrior mindset that they have,” coach Jon Cooper said of their return to the ice. “It just bleeds into everybody, and I think they take it upon themselves — it’s almost a badge of honor to get back out on the bench, and it’s impressive to see.”

Related: Lightning’s Jon Cooper: ‘Extremely probable’ Brayden Point plays in Cup final

The moments without Hedman and Cernak were reminiscent of how the Lightning won Game 2 of the second round against the Panthers. At least five players went down the tunnel that night, but every one of them came back up.

“I don’t know how much more we could have gone on (in that series after Game 4) had we had to play two nights later,” Cooper said.

On Saturday, about midway through the second period, Hedman was clearly frustrated as he skated toward the bench.

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He had just sent the puck up the ice when New York’s Alexis Lafrenière side-swiped him unexpectedly, throwing his shoulder into Hedman’s face. Hedman’s head immediately jerked left, and he grabbed at his face.

Skating toward the bench, he slammed his stick against the wall, breaking it in half. Moments later, he was pulled off the bench and went into the locker room, where he remained for the rest of the period.

Additionally, Cernak blocked a shot on the Rangers’ power play from Mika Zibanejad with his right hand. Cernak immediately skated toward the bench and walked down the tunnel. Less than seven minutes later he reappeared, taking a spin on the ice during a television timeout before returning to the bench.

“It’s been the tale of the playoffs for us,” Cooper said. “What those guys have done, it’s been a parade down the tunnel, and most of the time they all come back.”

Related: Lightning’s Riley Nash feels more confident as playoffs continue

Second line continues to press

Lightning left wing Alex Killorn (17) and center Anthony Cirelli (71) challenge at the crease during the second period.
Lightning left wing Alex Killorn (17) and center Anthony Cirelli (71) challenge at the crease during the second period. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

When Brandon Hagel streaked toward the net and collected a pass from Anthony Cirelli, the Lightning’s first offensive rush following Steven Stamkos’ third-period goal nearly extended the lead they had just regained.

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Cirelli had maneuvered his pass around a kneeling Rangers defender, and an earlier feed from Alex Killorn kept the sequence alive before he was pinned against the boards and allowed the scoring opportunity to surface.

Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin saved Hagel’s shot, but that chance helped capture the Hagel-Cirelli-Killorn line’s impact: They generated 12 shot attempts in the first period, added eight more over the final 40 minutes and held three of the Lightning’s top five individual expected-goal percentages in Game 6, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Hagel, Cirelli and Killorn each produced four shots on goal, while Killorn added three. Since Game 3, the trio has combined for only one goal — Hagel’s empty-netter in Game 5 — but produced 17, 12 and nine shot attempts in the Lightning’s previous three wins, respectively, before setting a series-high in the clincher.

“We’ve kind of found some chemistry,” Killorn said. “We haven’t chipped in as much offensively as we would have liked, but not for lack of trying. I mean, we’ve had a lot of scoring chances.”

In the first period, Hagel sent a pass to Cirelli’s stick outside the crease that Shesterkin saved, and Hagel nearly banked in a goal off Shesterkin’s helmet one period later.

The line caused disruptions off forechecks that prevented the Rangers from finding a rhythm offensively, including one with 12 minutes left in the second that created a scoring chance for Killorn — he fired the ensuing shot wide, though.

Goaltender battle lives up to hype

New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31)] falls to the ice after stopping a shot by Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) during the third period.
New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31)] falls to the ice after stopping a shot by Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) during the third period. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

It was fitting that a conference final billed as a battle between the league’s top goaltenders ended with a game both deserved to win.

Andrei Vasilevskiy’s biggest moment arguably came with 13:20 left in third period. Andrew Copp tried to knock in a rebound after a Jacob Trouba slap shot, but the four-time All-Star sprawled to preserve a 1-0 Lightning lead and prompted the loudest “Vasy’s better” chant of the series.

Shesterkin, however, made the most jaw-dropping saves Saturday. On a night when the Lightning managed 36 scoring chances to the Rangers’ 16, the Vezina favorite saved 29 of the 31 shots he faced (a .933 save percentage).

“He was our best player all-year long, Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said of Shesterkin, “and he did it again in this series.”

Trouba agreed.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to dispute that in the room or outside the room,” Trouba said of calling Shesterkin the most important member of the Rangers. “He’s a special goalie.”

The Moscow native’s best save may have been the stop on a Nikita Kucherov backhand — after Stamkos found him all alone in front of the crease — just over a minute into the third period.

Shesterkin was previously undefeated in five elimination games, but he was beaten by Stamkos’ slap-shot taken from near the Lightning bench. Stamkos made contact with Shesterkin’s glove as he knocked in his own rebound 21 seconds after Frank Vatrano tied the score, but the goal stood upon review.

Shesterkin required the fewest games to make 600 saves in a single postseason since 1955-56. He edged his predecessor, Henrik Lundqvist, by recording 10 playoff wins in his first 17 games, the quickest goalie to reach that mark in franchise history.

A despondent Chris Kreider, who also played under Lundqvist, was asked whether wasting Shesterkin’s heroics added to the Rangers’ disappointment.

“Yeah,” he said, followed by a long pause. “Really lucky to have arguably the best goaltending in the world my entire time here. And those guys have always given us a chance.”

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