Cirelli’s overtime winner sets up Stanley Cup Final between Lightning and Stars

The Lightning advanced to the Stanley Cup Final thanks to overtime hero Anthony Cirelli, who beat a brilliant Semyon Varlamov at 13:18 of sudden death to give Tampa a hard fought six game series win over the scrappy Islanders. They’ll face the Stars for Lord Stanley beginning Saturday night. AP Photo credit Tampa Bay Lightning via Getty Images

It looked like it would be a repeat of Game Five for the Lightning. Once again unable to score on a hi-sticking double minor that gave them even more power play time in overtime, they nearly let the determined and scrappy Islanders to get off the mat and level the series.

Had Brock Nelson been able to bury a clear-cut shorthanded breakaway on a dismal turnover, there would’ve been a winner advance or loser go home Game Seven. But Andrei Vasilevskiy made his biggest save of the very competitive Eastern Conference Final that required a few extra periods to decide. He was able to get his glove up to deny Nelson’s bid. He’ll probably be thinking about that chance the next couple of months.

That’s how close the Islanders were to forcing a deciding seventh game last night. Instead, following a maddening power play shift by the all too predictable Mat Barzal, Cirelli was able to get in on the forecheck on defenseman Devon Toews. Before you knew it, Barclay Goodrow fed him for the series clincher that banked in off the goalpost and just past an otherwise brilliant Semyon Varlamov to send the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final against the rested Stars.

Sometimes, it’s a game of inches. Even with the Bolts holding another edge in shots (48-27), it was much closer following the first period that saw the teams trade goals 2:13 apart. The Lightning held a 17-6 shots edge and really dictated the play. If not for a sharp Varlamov, who finished with a playoff career high 46 saves, this one could’ve been over early. He gave his team a chance to extend the series.

Despite early goals coming from defensemen Toews and the utterly otherworldly Victor Hedman, who was by far the best player in the series, nobody would score again the rest of regulation. It didn’t matter how many shots Tampa fired on Varlamov. He wasn’t having it. So locked in was the Isles netminder that even screens didn’t bother him. He shutdown everything and didn’t allow any rebounds. You could make a case that he was the game’s first star even though his team lost 2-1 to the Lightning in sudden death.

Vasilevskiy wasn’t bad either. He still made 26 saves and didn’t allow the Islanders to steal it. Believe me, they could’ve the way the second half of the game was played. It turned more into a grinding, forechecking physical style that Islanders coach Barry Trotz prefers. That lunchpail gritty game resulted in some good opportunities. But Vasilevskiy was strong in stopping the best Isles that included Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier, Matt Martin and Ryan Pulock.

The Lightning were bolstered by the return of top center Brayden Point, who despite whatever is bugging him, was again effective while working between the dangerous Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, who nearly had the winner on a backdoor play. But twice, he couldn’t slam home Mikhail Sergachev’s diagonal feed at the open net. The latter he got his stick on and sent it just wide. Following the shift, all he could do was shake his head and bury it at the Lightning bench.

Remarkably, Toews took a pair of needless delay of game minors. One with under seven minutes left in regulation when it was a redirect that felt incidental. That rule needs to be adjusted to interpretation. You would hate to see a team burned by it.

With not much happening and the game destined for overtime, the Bolts top line made a late push to end the suspense. Kucherov came close with under 30 seconds remaining. He eventually drew a errant hi-stick from veteran Andy Greene that also bloodied his nose. That meant four minutes. The penalty came with 23 seconds left.

However, the Lightning couldn’t come close to finishing off the Islanders, whose strong penalty kill went five-for-five in killing the Tampa power play. Hedman had the best chances with a couple of shots just missing the mark. Varlamov also got a piece of one for a superb save with traffic. He did everything he could.

A year ago, the signing was questioned by many including myself due to GM Lou Lamoriello letting Vezina finalist Robin Lehner walk. It’s safe to say Varlamov worked out well. He will work with top goalie prospect Ilya Sorokin in the future. Thomas Greiss will undoubtedly leave.

It was the Lightning, who got caught napping with too many men out 8:49 into OT. Point noticed it, but changed too late. Finally after five of six power plays including three straight, it was the Islanders turn. At least that’s what they thought.

Instead, they could do nothing with the two minute power play. It was due to Barzal, who stubbornly refused to alter his style. A splendid skater with great acceleration, the number one center attempted to carry the puck over the Tampa blueline three times. All three resulted in turnovers including a telegraphed pass that was easily intercepted and cleared down the ice. He made it easy on the four Lightning penalty killers. It wasn’t a good series for Barzal. Let’s leave it at that.

It only took the Bolts a few minutes to finally finish off the Isles for good. On a Alex Killorn soft dump in outside the designated area which in itself is a bad rule, a hustling Cirelli recovered the puck and got it over to Goodrow, who’d been effective in Game Six. An Isles defensive mishap cost them dearly. Goodrow centered for an open Cirelli for a one-timer that clanged off the far post and took a favorable carom off Varlamov and just over the goal line for the game-winner at 13:18 of overtime.

Following a video review, they confirmed the obvious. That the Lightning had won and were going back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years. They’ll play for Lord Stanley against another gritty opponent in the bigger and more skilled Stars. It all starts tomorrow night at 8 EST.

It was a great run by the Islanders, who played about as well as they could in the two elimination games. Even if the shots and attempts said otherwise, they made it tough on the Lightning. There were so many physical battles. It was a grinding series that illustrated why Trotz is such a good coach. He gets his teams to buy in.

They might’ve fallen short. But the way they played was admirable. That’s about all I can say regarding the Rangers’ bitter rival. They had a real shot to push it seven against arguably the best team left. The Stars will have something to say about that. That shapes up to be a good final. It could be a long one.

Congrats to the Lightning. Especially good friend Dan Wheeler, who had to be extremely nervous last night. I know I would’ve been. The Isles put a scare into the Bolts, who by advancing definitely let coach Jon Cooper exhale on the bench. You should’ve seen his reaction once it was official. It wasn’t anything like you’d expect. I don’t blame him. He deserves credit for getting his skilled team to play a more patient and taxing style. They had to.

GM Julien BriseBois gets due for bringing in those gritty team oriented character guys that help you win these kinds of games. The additions of Pat Maroon, Goodrow, Blake Coleman, Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn helped a lot. Every team needs the heavy lifters.

It should be more of the same against Dallas. Expect a hard fought series. One which will feature three of the best defensemen in hockey led by Hedman with Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg quite a duo for the Stars. It’s also a second chance for Ryan McDonagh to win a Cup. He sure knows how hard it is to get back. In 2014, he was in peak form as an elite defenseman who was the anchor of the Rangers defense. Good luck to him and the guy I give a hard time to, Kevin Shattenkirk.

Congrats also go out to the Islanders on what they did. It’s commendable considering they had to go an extra few games to beat the Panthers just to make the real tournament. They handled both the Caps and Flyers even if the latter never gave up. In some twisted irony, the Isles played that role against the Lightning. It just didn’t reach a Game Seven.

I’ll have more thoughts and observations on things in my next post.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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