Stamkos carries Lightning past Rangers, back to Stanley Cup Final

·6-min read

Steven Stamkos scored twice as the Tampa Bay Lightning advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season, defeating the New York Rangers 2-1 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Saturday.

Ondrej Palat added two assists in the victory, while Andrei Vasilevskiy made 20 saves.

Frank Vatrano had the lone tally for the Rangers, while goalie Igor Shesterkin turned away 29 shots.

Here are the main takeaways from the series-deciding contest:

Steven Stamkos, centre, scored two goals in Game 6 as the Lightning defeated the Rangers. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Steven Stamkos, centre, scored two goals in Game 6 as the Lightning defeated the Rangers. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Stamkos elevates his game to cap off outstanding series

Stamkos has undergone one of the most fascinating individual arcs of the modern era and it’s only fitting that the Lightning captain scored both goals to lead his team back to the Final for the third consecutive year. Tampa Bay won its first Cup in the bubble but Stamkos was rendered to just one heroic shift in the 2020 Final, where he scored against the Dallas Stars.

A fully healthy Stamkos is one of the league’s preeminent forces and he had to be at his best to pull off the nearly unfathomable task of advancing to a third Stanley Cup Final, especially with Brayden Point’s injury-related absence clouding over the Rangers series. It’s only fitting that Stamkos was the best player in Game 6 after recording 106 points in 81 games during the regular season, and with five goals and two assists in this series, there are no qualifiers on his superstar status.

Stamkos’s first goal won’t be on his career highlight-reel, but it speaks to his unmatched goal-scoring instincts, as he beat Shesterkin on a shot that even the cameraman appeared to do a double take on. But they all count the same, and New York’s goalie can be afforded a pass given his outstanding play during the series.

What’s most impressive is how Stamkos rose to the occasion on his game-winning marker. Vatrano beat Vasilevskiy off a faceoff with just under six minutes to go to tie it. But if we keep resorting back to the resolve of a champion, Stamkos tucked home a controversial winner 21 seconds later, appearing to steer the puck in off his body before making incidental contact with Shesterkin.

If we applied the standards of basketball and football prodigies, it’d be easy to point out here that all Stamkos does is win, he’s been a household name to the keenest of hockey observers for nearly two decades, and along with Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov, is a foundational part of hockey’s modern dynasty.

Standing in the way is a younger, faster, more dynamic Avalanche team. Stamkos and his peers aren’t going to flinch in the dream matchup.

Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli save their best for last

Stamkos, Kucherov and Palat were dominant throughout the series and played the part of an elite scoring line, so it was incumbent upon the rest of the forward corps to provide secondary support. Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn have combined for just one goal throughout the playoffs, and though the former has provided surplus defensive value, it’s a testament to Tampa’s top line and Vasilevskiy that they’re still alive. In fairness to Cirelli, Killorn and Brandon Hagel, they saved their best game for last, perhaps symptomatic of the team’s overall performance in Game 6.

Cirelli, Killorn and Hagel outshot their opponents 12-3 at 5-on-5 with an 81 percent share of the expected goals, per Natural Stat Trick. Killorn, who appeared to be labouring through stretches of the series, showed notable burst while forechecking throughout the contest, while Cirelli finished with four shots and four takeaways, adding to his reputation as a player who elevates his game in closeout scenarios.

It’ll be compelling to see how Jon Cooper deploys this line against the Avalanche, as their relentless pace and shot-creation ability provide a test that the Lightning frankly didn’t encounter from their previous Final opponents. In an ideal world, Killorn, Cirelli and Hagel are getting on the scoresheet to supplement the contributions of the top line, but it was a stellar performance in Game 6 and could allude to a return to form in the upcoming series.

Vasilevskiy-Shesterkin duel lived up to the hype

This series was advertised as a battle between the league’s two best goaltenders and it lived up to the hype, with the matchup initially swinging towards Shesterkin before Elimination Game Vasilevskiy fought back towards the latter stages.

Shesterkin completed one of the most remarkable runs by a goaltender in the modern era and many have noted that we have to account for his overall workload in any comparison against Vasilevskiy or otherwise. There’s no shame in being bested by Vasilevskiy, but Shesterkin — in conjunction with a stellar opening two games from the Kid Line of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil — was imperative as to why both Games 5 and 6 went down to the wire.

Shesterkin should’ve been expected to save Stamkos’s first goal, but he had no chance on the second, while protesting a potential goaltender interference infraction to no avail. There’s almost certainly nothing that will console him other than the idea that the Rangers should almost assuredly be back, even if nothing’s promised in the modern NHL. He did everything he could against a Lightning team that began to dominate the possession share and quality of shots created as the series went on, and can hold his head high.

As for Vasilevskiy, there’s nothing left to say, really. Against a speedy Avalanche team that looks better on paper and that is patiently waiting with over a week of rest, Vasilevskiy will be the difference. He is far superior to either goaltender the West finalist will roll out.

There’s no point in writing about his legacy prematurely. He’s the best goalie alive and he continues to casually build his resume in the most pressure-packed scenarios imaginable.

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