The Lightning are going back to the Stanley Cup Final. The defending champs bested the gritty Islanders in seven hard fought games thanks to Yanni Gourde’s shorthanded goal last night at Tampa. It was his goal would the Islanders were on the game’s only power play that proved to be the difference in a Lightning’ 1-0 shutout to take the deciding Game Seven.
For most of the game, the Bolts had the better of the play. They dominated in puck possession and led in shots by a wide margin. Despite a 15-5 edge in shots during a strong first period, they couldn’t beat Isles’ goalie Semyon Varlamov. The starting netminder played very well in stopping 30 of 31 shots in a losing effort. Overall, the Islanders were outshot 31-18 including 27-11 through two periods. They weren’t able to mount much of an attack.
That was largely due to the superior skilled Lightning, who were bolstered by leading scorer Nikita Kucherov returning to the lineup along with key defenseman Erik Cernak. Even though Kucherov didn’t factor into the scoring, just his presence gave his team an emotional lift. After only taking one shift in Game Six before leaving with an injury, he was good enough to play on Friday night. That allowed coach Jon Cooper to have his regular lines including the top one that features Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat and Kucherov.
It wasn’t the top guns who were big factors in the Bolts’ second straight series win over the Islanders in the third round. Rather the supporting cast. Gourde was one of their best players along with Anthony Cirelli, Barclay Goodrow, Tyler Johnson, Ross Colton and Pat Maroon. The third and fourth lines were very effective throughout the game due to Cooper using them more.
Along with an outstanding performance from Ryan McDonagh (5 blocked shots in 22:10), Tampa smothered the Islanders with their forecheck, physicality and defensive play. They blocked 21 shots. Of the Isles’ 49 attempts, 31 never made it to Andrei Vasilevskiy, who turned aside 18 shots for the shutout.
In a game where the defending champion Lightning controlled most of the play at five-on-five, they held a 30-15 edge in shots. The other shot came while shorthanded early in the second period of a scoreless game. With Goodrow in the box for cross-checking Adam Pelech, this was the opportunity for the Islanders to score.
Instead of taking the lead, they had an attempt blocked by McDonagh. He then moved the puck to Alex Killorn for a counterattack. After Killorn got a pass over to Cirelli, he drew three Islanders including Josh Bailey, who puck watched. Off the Tampa bench came Gourde to take a Cirelli feed and in one motion, one-timed the puck past the glove of Varlamov for a shorthanded goal at 1:49. That proved to be the only goal.
Still on the power play, the Islanders got a couple of scoring chances. The best one came when Mat Barzal passed down low to an open Anthony Beauvillier at the side of the Tampa net. However, the Game Six hero had his redirection go right off the near crossbar and stay out. It was that close.
The Lightning outshot the Islanders 12-6 in the second. They continued to generate chances, but Varlamov held them off the scoreboard. The Isles found it extremely tough to do anything. When they weren’t pinned in their end, they were unable to have any sustained pressure. Outside of an early Vasilevskiy pad save on Beauvillier in the first period, they were severely outplayed by a better team. The Bolts’ championship experience showed up in the do or die game.
The third was more interesting. With the Lightning beginning to back up, a desperate Islanders started to mount an attack. They fired many shots towards Vasilevskiy. But only seven made it. He calmly stopped everything. When it was over following a frantic Isles’ last second push, the Tampa goalie improved to 13-0 following losses since last year’s playoffs. An astonishing mark.
There were some close calls. Bailey had a good chance in the slot a few minutes into the third, but fired high and wide. The best chance came when Barzal looked to have an open net. Following a Pelech shot that caroled towards him with Vasilevskiy in full scramble mode, Barzal had the bouncing puck go underneath his stick. He fanned on it completely. It was a home bounce for the Lightning.
Afterwards, the Bolts finally strung together some good shifts in the Islanders’ end to nearly kill off the remainder of the game. Even with Barry Trotz lifting Varlamov for an extra attacker with over two minutes remaining, the Islanders hardly got anything.
If not for some hustle plays in their zone to prevent an empty netter, the Isles would’ve never even had a last ditch effort to tie it. But with under 25 seconds left, they finally got the puck into the Lightning end. Beauvillier had the best look. With under 10 seconds left, he threw a sharp angle shot towards Vasilevskiy that didn’t go. A final attempt towards Barzal in front was intercepted by Kucherov and cleared harmlessly away. That ended the suspense.
The Lightning all celebrated the hard fought victory over a resilient opponent who wouldn’t die. The Trotz Islanders remind me of Freddy Krueger, Jason and Michael Myers. They got blown out 8-0 in Game Five. But found a way to rally from two goals down to pull out Game Six on a Beauvillier overtime winner. It proved to be the final game at Nassau Coliseum. Maybe that’s why some of their fans crazily tossed beer on the ice. Whatever the reason, it was a proper sendoff which Trotz enjoyed. He likes beer. Cool.
In the end, the better team won. The rematch was exactly what I thought it would be. When asked by people what I felt before the series, I said it would go seven games. I didn’t pick a winner due to superstition. If you root for our Rangers, you understand why. The Islanders playing for a Cup for the first time since 1984 wasn’t a comfortable thought. No matter what you think of them mostly due to some of their fans, the Islanders played superb hockey to reach this point. I can only tip my hat to them. They worked their tails off for Trotz.
Let’s remember one thing. If it weren’t for the bitter rival Islanders from Long Island, the Rangers don’t clean house. Those three lopsided games were a total embarrassment. It showed how far our team still has to go. In a way, we can thank Trotz and his Isles for waking up MSG. The time is now for them to take the giant step back to the playoffs under Gerard Gallant. We know Chris Drury will be busy over the next month. It’ll be interesting to see what he does with the roster.
One final thought on Trotz. I felt he made a mistake not inserting Oliver Wahlstrom into his offensively challenged lineup. He could’ve made a difference with his big shot and helped their awful power play. Even Barry Trotz has flaws. Many coaches stick with their guys who got them there. In my mind, Trotz made a mistake. I would’ve dressed Wahlstrom over either Leo Komarov or Travis Zajac. Their third line centered by Jean-Gabriel Pageau along with Zajac and Kyle Palmieri cost them in that series. Pageau played through an injury and didn’t record a single point. Palmieri never scored after producing in the first two rounds.
At the end of the day, no tears will be shed here. But I saw an awful lot of our fans celebrating the Isles’ loss as if it was a win. In no way shape or form was it that. Unless the Blueshirts are competing for the Cup, I don’t care about our rival losing. It’s more relief than anything. Leave that garbage for some Islander fans and a few Devil fans. I guess at the end of the day, our fans are just as guilty of it. I don’t take any satisfaction in our rivals’ losses. It’s not the same feeling as seeing our team win a big game.
Well, the Stanley Cup Final in set. It’ll be the Montreal Canadiens challenging the Tampa Bay Lightning for the most prestigious trophy in sports. Can the Bolts repeat? Or are the Habs led by Carey Price, Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Tyler Toffoli a team of destiny? I think it’ll be a good series. I wonder if the Islanders took something out of the Lightning. That was a very physical series. Four of the seven games were decided by a goal. Outside of the Tampa 8-0 laugher, it was a very good series.
This is the first time since 1993 that Montreal will play for the Cup. They won their record 24th championship by defeating the Wayne Gretzky Kings in five. I still remember it. I was rooting for Gretzky. He willed LA past the Doug Gilmour Maple Leafs. That was the year the Leafs should’ve won. Instead, they’re in a 54-year drought. Cruelest irony of ironies.
Instead, Patrick Roy was unbelievable winning 10 consecutive overtime games. He went 10-1 in OT. The Habs used an illegal stick by Marty McSorley to tie up Game Two. Then Eric Desjardins won it in sudden death after tying it. The Kings never recovered. John Leclair also scored a big goal in OT. The Habs won four straight after losing Game One to win Lord Stanley.
Coincidentally, the Canadiens are the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup. We’ll see if they can bring it back home. The Stanley Cup Final begins on Monday with Games 1 and 2 in Tampa. It should be exciting. Price versus Vasilevskiy in net. The two best goalies no matter what all the uneducated cynics say about Price. Now, you see why. Defense and timely scoring against speed, skill and grit. Get ready.
Even though I still love McDonagh and miss him especially when I notice how well he’s playing, I am gonna support the Canadiens. I am close with a few Habs fans. They’re as passionate as it gets. Most of our fans will be pulling for the Lightning due to the old rivalry with Montreal. That includes my Dad and brother. One of our good friends is a Lightning fan. If they win again, I’ll be happy for him. Hoping we get a classic seven-game series. Let’s enjoy it.