The Tampa Bay Lightning head to the Stanley Cup Finals for the third straight season and the rewards start again on the road against the best regular season team in the Western Conference.
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 twice, the second just 21 seconds after Rangers tied the game in the third period.
“We don’t care how it’s done, it just has to be done,” he told reporters after the game. “I’m very proud of this group. We’re going to the final again and have the chance to do something special.”
Stamkos opened the scoring in Saturday’s goalie battle when his wrist shot escaped a partially masked Igor Shesterkin at 10:43 of the second period.
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Stamkos was in the penalty area when New York’s Frank Vatrano tied the game on the power play at 13:07 of the third period.
But Stamkos scored in the following shift on a 2-on-1 break when the rebound from his shot landed on his leg.
“Obviously a bit 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 shaken as usual in those situations. I was just confident in our group that we would find a way , whether in regular time or 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 few goals in a huge game like this, but if I didn’t score and we won, I’d be just as happy. … We know everyone in our room plays a huge role in our success as a group.”
Shesterkin, a Vezina and Hart Trophy finalist, made 28 saves as he failed to improve to 6-0 in playoff games this postseason.
“I thought Igor was exceptional,” said Rangers coach Gerard Gallant. “He gave us a chance to win every night and we were outplayed in a lot of games, but he was exceptional. He was our best player all year and has done so again in this series.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy made 20 saves and was helped by 17 shots blocked by defenders.
The fact that the Lightning have been 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.
“It’s no secret that they have electric players,” Stamkos said. “To be honest, it’s probably a team we’ve been thinking about playing the last two years. … Now they’ve broken through and they just have an amazing mix of veteran presence, star power, crushers, goalkeeper 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 to 1983.
Although the Lightning lacked home advantage throughout the playoffs, they beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games, swept the No. 1-seeded Florida Panthers and defeated the Rangers in six. They rallied to the Eastern Conference Finals after losing the first two games, including 6-2 in Game 1 after a long layoff.
“As the series went on we got better and better, and I think tonight might have been our best game overall,” forward Alex Killorn said.
Lightning’s Victor Hedman leaves the game temporarily
Victor Hedman was taken out of the game in the second period when Alexis Lafrenière headed him with a miss. The defender, who is a Norris Trophy finalist for a fifth consecutive season, grabbed his head and broke his stick returning to the bench.
Hedman rubbed his jaw while sitting on the bench and had to go to the locker room, likely due to concussion protocol.
But he returned to action in the third period and played a regular shift.
Kaapo Kakko of Rangers a healthy scratch
Gallant had restricted the use of the Kid Line during the team’s Game 5 loss.
In Game 6, he left Kaapo Kakko and moved the other two Kid Line members to other lines. Lafrenière started alongside Mika Zibanejad and Vatrano and Filip Chytil was on a line with Chris Kreider and Barclay Goodrow, although the lines changed later.
Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick in 2019, has five points in 19 playoff games. Forward Brayden Hunt made his third playoff appearance and his first since the first round.
New York’s Ryan Strome, who played through injury, briefly left the warm-up but dressed for the game. He did not play in the third period.
Lightning center Brayden Point, who was injured in the first round, was again absent, although he was skating.
“I don’t know the odds of Game 1, but it’s extremely likely he’ll play in the series,” coach Jon Cooper said.