The Tampa Bay Lightning are four wins away from becoming something bigger and better than just another Stanley Cup championship team.
“That’s what we’ve talked about, hey, it’s all well and good to one day put on your gravestone that you won a Stanley Cup, but to do it two years in a row, multiple times, you’re talking about now your team is special,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Years down the road, they say, ‘Well, that Tampa team during some time was a hell of a team,’ and I think you can really put your stamp on that if you win another one.”
The Lightning, Stanley Cup champions last year, showcased their desire to be special in a 1-0 win in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals against the New York Islanders at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida on Friday.
It was exactly the type of game the Lightning have learned how to win in the past two postseasons after failing to get the message for so many years.
They used to be the run and gun and fun Lightning, the team that would score nearly four goals per game in the regular season but routinely get shut down in big moments in the playoffs, like their previous two Game 7s; a 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final and a 4-0 loss to the Washington Capitals in the 2018 conference final.
Now they’re the resilient Lightning, the team that doesn’t lose two in a row in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, that doesn’t make the same mistakes, that always digs deep to win in whatever way is necessary when it matters most.
“That was just a textbook Game 7,” said goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made 18 saves for his NHL-record fourth straight shutout in a series clinching game.
The Lightning didn’t win Game 7 with a barrage of offense; instead they won with a constant attack mentality, constant pressure.
They outshot the Islanders 14-5 in the first period, 27-11 after two. New York went 11:48 without a shot on goal in the second period, 10:26 without one in the third.
“We didn’t play too much in our end in those first two periods,” Cooper said. “We talk about it often, the best defense is playing offense. We took the risk out of our game. We weren’t giving them breaks. We were on top of them. We were making them change first.”
They won with patience, as shown by defenseman Ryan McDonagh on the goal, scored shorthanded by forward Yanni Gourde at 1:49 of the second period.
It started with McDonagh holding the puck deep in the defensive zone waiting for an opening. The puck went through forward Alex Killorn to forward Anthony Cirelli, who eventually found Gourde for a wrist shot from the inside left hash marks.
“First of all, on the PK just before we scored we had two or three great blocked shots and that goal doesn’t happen if those guys don’t go down and block those shots,” Gourde said. “‘Mac,’ once he got the puck, he was real patient. He made a great pass to ‘Killer.’ Killer to Tony. Tony dragged three guys to him and put it in the slot for me. I just shot it as quick as I could and I was fortunate to get the goal there.”
They won because they bent but didn’t break in the last five minutes of the third period, when the Islanders finally pushed back and started to apply pressure.
The Lightning blocked four shots in the final 2:16 after the Islanders pulled goalie Semyon Varlamov for the extra skater.
“They went into warrior mode and it was fun to watch,” Cooper said.
They won without needing Vasilevskiy to be great with ten-bell saves all night, but instead to just make the saves required of him.
He stopped forward Anthony Beauvillier on a breakaway with a right pad save at 2:25 of the first period. He made six saves in the final 8:47.
“We always talk about it, but he’s the best in the world for a reason,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “He’s the steady rock that allows us to go out there and play with pace, play with confidence, play with a lead. And I thought we did an unbelievable job of that. After we got that goal we just kept pushing and ‘Vasy’ made some huge saves when he had to.”
The Lightning have to keep pushing if they want to be special.
The Montreal Canadiens stand in their way of winning back-to-back championships like the Pittsburgh Penguins did in 2016 and 2017.
Game 1 is at Tampa Bay on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVAS).
They need four more performances like Game 7.
“Now we’ve got to buckle up for another great series and try to go do it all again,” Stamkos said, “because it’s the best time in the world.”