All postseason, the Lightning have been on a mission. It began with a five game first round triumph over the Blue Jackets, avenging last year’s humiliation. They still had to work extra hard in Games One and Five before putting Columbus away thanks to Brayden Point. He Pointed the Bolts in the right direction.
Along with the brilliant play of Victor Hedman, dominance of Nikita Kucherov and emergence of Ondrej Palat, these Lightning are on the verge of winning their second Stanley Cup. They can also thank Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s enormous saves seem to come at the right time. He might not have repeated as the Vezina winner, but he’s the best goalie in the NHL. More often than not, the athletic Russian is able to make the clutch stops when his team needs it. Take his huge kick save of a Stars pointblank chance that could’ve put the Lightning down two.
Instead, the Bolts came back to score two straight goals including one from Alex Killorn on a turnaround shot that caught Anton Khudobin off his angle for a 4-3 lead in a wild third period last night in Game Four. But the Stars would come back thanks to a yeoman effort from the ever clutch Joe Pavelski, whose shot towards the Tampa net banked off Kevin Shattenkirk with Tyler Seguin in the vicinity and past Vasilevskiy to tie the score. Initially, it was given to Seguin, who played his best game in a long time. But it didn’t go off him. So, they credited it to Pavelski.
Shattenkirk has redeemed himself this year with Tampa. After being bought out by the Rangers because it didn’t work out with them rebuilding, he decided to sign with the Lightning. A team that was close to winning that played a better style more suited to his offensive minded skating game. It’s worked out well.
Although there have been moments where he was caught on for goals against like Pavelski’s game-tying power play goal, Shattenkirk has come back to contribute to the Tampa success. Healthier than he was in the Big Apple, he’s demonstrated what he brings. A good puck handling offensive defenseman, who is capable of making smart reads. Take Friday night’s 5-4 overtime win over a desperate Stars to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
On a gifted power play by some porous officiating, he took a Hedman feed at the right point and found enough of a seam to get off a good, accurate wrist shot that beat Khudobin far side into the top of the net for the clutch OT winner. It had to feel good for the veteran, who like his team, had something to prove this season. He sure has. Good for Kevin Shattenkirk. A good guy, who just didn’t work out even though the hometown kid had hoped it would go better in his two years on Broadway. It happens.
Now, he’s partnered again with Ryan McDonagh in a Lightning Bolt jersey a win away from Lord Stanley. Something McDonagh came close to twice as a Blueshirt. Only once did he get to play for it with his former team falling short of their goal in 2014. Their hearts and body parts broken into pieces in a crushing Game Seven loss to the Lightning the following Spring.
It’s ironic how almost all Rangers wind up in
Blueshirts South Tampa Bay. At one point, you had Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi and then McDonagh and JT Miller. Not all at one time. Boyle was gone after their last Stanley Cup appearance in 2015. Stralman stayed until last year where he wound up with the Panthers. Ironically, Boyle signed there. Girardi and Callahan are since retired. Miller was dealt to the Canucks where he finally had his best season. Now, it’s only McDonagh and Shattenkirk, who can get their names etched on the greatest trophy in sports.
Both have had good postseasons. Shattenkirk supplying more offense while McDonagh does the nuts and bolts. He’s been hitting like a freight train and playing outstanding defense like he once did here in NYC. It’s nice to see the former Rangers captain looking healthy and motivated. He no longer has to be leaned on for offense. He doesn’t play power play. The Lightning have all world Conn Smythe candidate Hedman for that. He’s a goal shy of tying Brian Leetch, who scored 11 goals in his Conn Smythe run during ’94.
Coach Jon Cooper can also use Shattenkirk and Mikhail Sergachev on the man-advantage. McDonagh can focus primarily on defending at five-on-five and playing penalty kill. Areas he excels at. He’s on the second pair. A better fit for him at this stage. The hard work is paying off. If the Lightning do wrap it up tonight, it’ll be strange seeing McDonagh lift the Cup with Shattenkirk. However, the latter was only a Ranger two years before management realized they were going in a different direction. They’re in good shape on the right side with Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba and Tony DeAngelo with prospect Nils Lundkvist a year away.
Sometimes, that’s how it goes. Shattenkirk grew up idolizing Leetch and those 1994 Rangers. However, he wasn’t healthy and played through pain before opting for surgery. By the time he returned, McDonagh was gone along with Miller. The organization decided to reverse course due to a declining Henrik Lundqvist, whose time could be up. The first buyout period already began with the Senators placing Bobby Ryan on unconditional waivers to buy him out. The period runs into early October. So, there’s no rush for the Rangers to decide on Lundqvist yet. We’ll see where it goes.
Given the state of sports due to the pandemic, the NHL salary cap is likely holding steady at $81.5 million. That’s going to force teams into tough decisions. If the Rangers buyout Lundqvist, they’ll have over 12 million in dead cap space for next year. But the other choices are finding a trading partner who’ll be able to absorb the remainder of his $8.5 million cap hit through next year. Or the prideful Lundqvist could retire. Not something I foresee. Unless he decided to return to Frolunda for a year and then attempt a comeback in 2021-22 at 40. His kids go to school in the city.
All this is pure speculation. For now, we may as well enjoy whatever is left of this extended NHL season. Games 4 and 5 are the first back-to-back games in the Stanley Cup Final since 2009 per NBC Sports Network host Kathryn Tappen. I don’t think these teams should have to play consecutive days. But that’s how it’s scheduled. So, it’s the Lightning looking to win a fourth straight game to wrap it up. The Stars hoping they have enough left to force a Game Six.
I really thought Dallas would win last night. They probably should have. Even if the Lightning had the edge in shots and territorial play. It was the Tampa power play that did most of the damage with three goals coming on the five-on-four. That included Point getting his second by batting a puck out of midair and valuable third line center Yanni Gourde burying one home off a fortunate bounce.
It’s unfortunate that the refs got involved in the finish to a great game. First, they didn’t want to send Corey Perry to the penalty box by himself for tripping up Point. Somehow, they decided Point embellished leading to a four-on-four. You should’ve seen both his reaction and Cooper’s. It was ridiculous.
Then in overtime, with Seguin getting past Sergachev, he grabbed the attacking Star to hand Dallas a four-on-three. A perfect opportunity to even the series. But Vasilevskiy was sharp in denying Miro Heiskanen and preventing the Stars from winning it. Seguin was all set up on one glorious chance, but sent his dangerous one-timer just high and wide. It narrowly missed the mark. That’s how it’s gone for him. He remains stuck on two goals in the entire playoffs. But was much better yesterday.
The Stars inability to capitalize on their power play came back to haunt them. An even more egregious error by the officials lead to their demise. A back ref called captain Jamie Benn for tripping Point. Only he didn’t. Conclusive replays showed that Benn didn’t kick out the skates of Point. He didn’t slew foot him. It was a horrible call that gave the Lightning a power play.
For the first part of the power play, Dallas got the job done. Their penalty kill looked like it was up to the challenge. However, following a Gourde face-off win, Hedman finally had enough time to control the puck at the point. He worked it over to Shattenkirk, who had a player (Pat Maroon) in front. It was a perfect screen. He was able to quickly fire a seeing eye shot between a Dallas player’s skates and past Khudobin for the game-winner.
That gave the Lightning a thrilling 5-4 victory in a game they once trailed 2-0 and later 4-3. It was a bitter end for the Stars with Benn knowing full well it wasn’t a penalty. You hate to see such a great game decided in that fashion. Now, all Dallas can do is move on and focus on winning later to keep their Cup hopes alive. Do they have a 3-1 comeback in them?
It’ll be tough due to how well the Lightning are playing. They took Game Three thanks to captain Steven Stamkos returning and scoring an electrifying goal off a rush in a rout. He didn’t take another shift. But stayed on the bench. His final stat line was one goal on one shot and a plus-one in 2:47. That could be all he plays in this Final. In fact, his focused team has done it without him thanks to that cohesive top line and a tremendous supporting cast that includes key additions Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman. There’s also Conference Final hero Anthony Cirelli, who’ll get a raise in the off-season.
But Stamkos is credited by thankful teammates for being there for all of it. It’s had to be very hard to watch for the Tampa captain. But throwing his emotional support behind his team means a lot. You can tell. They’re a close-knit group who believes in itself. That’s why they’re a win away from delivering a second Cup to Tampa. They haven’t won since 2004 when they had to dig deep to come back and beat the Flames in seven. Martin St. Louis was the OT hero in Game Six and Ruslan Fedotenko (The Closer) was the Game Seven hero.
The Lightning last played for the Cup in 2015 when they lost in six to the championship proven Blackhawks. This time, they look to put the finishing touches on a special run. As hard a postseason as there’s ever been minus fans and home ice due to the Coronavirus. If they win, they’re to be congratulated. So is the NHL for successfully putting on a great show.
It’s not over yet. The Stars will have something to say about it. We’ll see if they can keep this very long summer that’s now Fall going.