The Tampa Bay Lightning are heading to the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season and the reward is starting on the road again against the Western Conference’s top regular-season team.
The way the two-time defending champions beat the New York Rangers 2-1 in Game 6 will help them when they face the Colorado Avalanche in Game 1 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
Captain Steven Stamkos scored two goals, the second just 21 seconds after the Rangers had tied the game in the third period.
“We don’t care how it gets done, it just needs to get done,” he told reporters after the game. “I’m very proud of this group. We’re going to the Finals again and have a chance to do something special.”
Stamkos opened the scoring in Saturday’s goaltending battle when his wrist shot eluded a partially screened Igor Shesterkin at 10:43 of the second period.
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Stamkos was in the penalty box when New York’s Frank Vatrano tied the game on a power play at 13:07 of the third period.
But Stamkos scored on the next shift on a 2-on-1 break when the rebound of his shot went in off his leg.
“Obviously a little disappointed in myself for taking the penalty,” he said. “You see them score and you’re in the box. It was weird. For some reason, I wasn’t as rattled as I usually am in those situations. I was just confident in our group that we’d find a way, whether it was in regulation or in overtime. We deserved to win tonight.”
Shesterkin complained but the goal survived a review.
“It’s not the individuals,” Stamkos said. “It’s great to score a couple goals in a huge game like this, but if I didn’t score and we won, I’d be just as happy. … We know that everyone in our room plays a huge part in our group success.”
Shesterkin, a finalist for the Vezina and Hart trophies, made 28 saves as he fell short in his bid to improve to 6-0 in elimination games this postseason.
“I thought Igor was outstanding,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. “He gave us a chance to win every night and we got outchanced in a lot of the games, but he was outstanding. He was our best player all year long and did it again in this series.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy made 20 saves and was aided by 17 blocked shots by defenders.
The fact that the Lightning were able to hold the Rangers to one goal in each of the last three games bodes well as they prepare to face the high-flying Avalanche.
“There’s no secret that they have some electric players,” Stamkos said. “To be honest, they’re probably a team that we thought we’d play the last couple years. … Now they’ve broken through and they have just an unbelievable mix of veteran presence, star power, grinders, the goalie. A huge challenge for us.”
The Lightning are trying to become the first team to win three consecutive Stanley Cups since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980-83.
Though the Lightning have lacked home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, they beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games, swept the No. 1 overall seed Florida Panthers and beat the Rangers in six. They rallied in the Eastern Conference final after losing the first two games, including 6-2 in Game 1 after a long layoff.
“As the series progressed, we got better and better, and I think maybe tonight might have been our best game overall,” forward Alex Killorn said.
Lightning’s Victor Hedman temporarily leaves game
Victor Hedman was pulled out of the game in the second period when Alexis Lafrenière caught him in the head with a check. The defenseman, who is a Norris Trophy finalist for the fifth consecutive season, grabbed his head and broke his stick as he returned to the bench.
Hedman rubbed his jaw as he sat on the bench and had to go to the dressing room, presumably because of concussion protocol.
But he returned to action in the third period and played a regular shift.
Rangers’ Kaapo Kakko a healthy scratch
Gallant had limited the use of the Kid Line during the team’s loss in Game 5.
In Game 6, he sat out Kaapo Kakko and moved the other two members of the Kid Line to other lines. Lafrenière started alongside Mika Zibanejad and Vatrano and Filip Chytil was on a line with Chris Kreider and Barclay Goodrow, though the lines changed up later.
Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick in 2019, has five points in 19 playoff games. Forward Brayden Hunt made his third appearance of his postseason and first since the first round.
New York’s Ryan Strome, who has been playing through an injury, left warmups briefly but dressed for the game. He didn’t play in the third period.
Lightning center Brayden Point, who was injured in the first round, sat out again, though he is skating.
“I don’t know about the probability of Game 1, but it’s extremely probable that he will play in the series,” coach Jon Cooper said.