The Tampa Bay Lightning will play for Lord Stanley's Cup for the third consecutive season, the first team to do so since the Edmonton Oilers from 1983-85.
Once down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Final to the New York Rangers coming off a nine-day rest, Tampa Bay's confidence never wavered and on Saturday at Amalie Arena, they looked every bit the back-to-back reigning Stanley Cup champions. The Lightning defeated the Rangers, 2-1, to finish the series off -- with the Western Conference champion Colorado Avalanche awaiting their arrival in Denver for Game 1 on Wednesday.
To get there, Tampa Bay needed to play a full 60 -- and they needed to beat Igor Shesterkin -- something that is far from easy. Lightning captain Steven Stamkos did it twice, both goals which Shesterkin would love to have back.
The first was a seemingly harmless wrister from 35-feet out, which found its way in the back of the net. Perhaps it was the positioning of defenseman Ryan Lindgren which blocked Shesterkin from getting a good read -- regardless, the goal made it 1-0 Tampa Bay 10:24 into the second period.
Stamkos' eighth goal of the playoffs wouldn't be near as important as his ninth, which came after the Rangers grabbed their first bit of momentum in Game 6. At one point in the third period, the Lightning had 13 scoring chances alone, while the Rangers had just 14 total shots on goal.
5v5 had been a problem for the Rangers coming into Saturday, with New York beating Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy just once at even strength since Game 2. The Rangers needed a power play and got one with less than eight minutes remaining in the third. Frank Vatrano converted on the power play at 13:07 into the third, which was likely to give New York some juice.
Until it didn't.
In fact, Vatrano's equalizer only awoke the Lightning even more, who a mere seconds later, were in front on the scoreboard. You guessed it, Stamkos again, his ninth and the game-winner to send the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final.
As they had in the previous three games, the line of Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat delivered once again in a big moment.
As for Vasilevskiy, betting against him in a series-clinching game can almost be deemed a punishable offense. The "Big Cat," after a slow start to the series where he allowed nine goals in Games 1 and 2, rebounded and allowed only five goals in the final four games of the series.
Saturday's 21-save performance was more of what you'd expect from Vasilevskiy, who in his last eight series-clinching games, has been nothing short of extraordinary. Over that run, he's faced 221 shots on goal and allowed just two to trickle by him. The six series-clinching shutouts are the most in NHL history.