The Tampa Bay Lightning are going to the Stanley Cup Final for the third season in a row. With a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final, the Lightning move on to face the Colorado Avalanche for the NHL's top prize.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos played hero with a pair of goals, including the game-winner late in the third that banked in off his body after a great save by Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin. Beyond that, Andrei Vasilevskiy did what he does in elimination games, which is build a forcefield around his own net. Vasilevskiy didn't have a massive workload, but he stopped 20 of the 21 shots he faced, and he answered the bell when called upon.
Shesterkin did everything he could to force a Game 7 in New York, but his offense let him down for the final time in this series. Even on Tampa's game-winning goal, Shesterkin made the save but was the victim of an unlucky bounce. Everywhere outside of the crease, the Rangers got thoroughly outplayed, and their five-on-five offense was non-existent. In the final four games of the series, New York scored just one five-on-five goal.
The Lightning continue to roll with their 11th straight postseason win, and the Rangers took major strides forward in their first year under head coach Gerard Gallant, but they ran into a very experienced buzzsaw.
Lightning strikes three times
When the Pittsburgh Penguins went back-to-back as Stanley Cup champions in 2016 and 2017, it was hard to believe that feat would happen again anytime soon with how difficult it is to win in the salary cap era. Then the Lightning rattled off back-to-back championships in 2020 and 2021, and they are four wins away from making it three in a row. That feat hasn't been accomplished since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980 to 1983.
While Tampa Bay gets some criticism for the way it circumvents the NHL's salary cap, you have to tip your cap to general manager Julien BriseBois and this group of core players. The Lightning have had to make some tough financial decisions every year, but BriseBois has been able to find replacements while keeping his key veterans like Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman. Those players also deserve a lot of credit for staying hungry every season and not giving in to an ounce of complacency.
Rangers fizzle in final four games
After taking a 2-0 series lead in New York, the Rangers lost every bit of offensive mojo they had. New York struggled to generate dangerous chances consistently all year, but they were able to capitalize on the opportunities they did get. That finishing touch ran out against a strong defensive team and the best goaltender in the world.
In Games 1 and 2, the Rangers scored a combined eight goals at five-on-five despite generating fewer high-danger chances. In the last four games, New York found the back of the net just once at five-on-five. That lack of offensive spark was on full display in Game 6. The Rangers got just 21 shots through on Andrei Vasilevskiy and generated a meager 0.95 expected goals in all situations, per Natural Stat Trick. The power play tried to keep New York in the game with a third-period goal, but good special teams alone won't get the job done against the Lightning.
Vasilevskiy, Shesterkin steal the show
The only reason Game 6 wasn't a blowout in favor of Tampa Bay was due to the efforts of Igor Shesterkin, who stopped 29 of the 31 shots he faced. With the exception of the first Stamkos goal, Shesterkin was flawless. As the only Ranger on top of his game from start to finish, Shesterkin deserved a much better result. If the team in front of him had been able to create any offense at all, we might be preparing for a Game 7 on Monday night.
Thanks to the superb defensive efforts of the Lightning, Vasilevskiy wasn't nearly as busy as his New York counterpart. That said, Vasilevskiy did have ice in his veins for another elimination game. The Tampa netminder turned away 20 of the 21 shots that did get to him, and he had to make the odd big save after spending long stretches of game time without seeing any action at all. The two best goalies in the league went head-to-head in this series, and they both delivered with elite performances while saving the best for last.