One year after being shocked in the first round, the Tampa Bay Lightning are heading to the Stanley Cup Final.
They defeated the New York Islanders 2-1 Thursday night in the Edmonton, Alberta, bubble to win the Eastern Conference final 4-2 and set up a meeting with the Dallas Stars. Game 1 is Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC).
Anthony Cirelli, who left the game earlier after an inadvertent knee-on-knee collision with the Islanders’ Anders Lee, scored at 13:18 of overtime for the Lightning’s third trip to the Final and first since 2015. They won the Cup in 2004. His shot went off the post and off the skate of Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov (46 saves) before trickling over the line.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper told reporters that Cirelli was basically playing on one leg.
“Obviously, I was in a little bit of pain there,” Cirelli said of the collision, “but I was fine and fortunate enough to finish the game.”
Tampa Bay was swept last season by the Columbus Blue Jackets after a record-tying 62-win season. The Lightning had 43 wins in 70 games in the coronavirus-shortened regular season, but were better equipped this time for a longer run.
They added rugged Pat Maroon and Barclay Goodrow, 20-goal scorer Blake Coleman and shored up their defense with Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian.
That allowed them to advance past the Blue Jackets, Boston Bruins and Islanders despite captain Steven Stamkos being unfit to play this postseason.
Stamkos came out on the ice as the Lightning accepted the Prince of Wales Trophy as Eastern Conference champion. Unlike the Stars, Lightning players touched the trophy.
“We wanted Steven part of it, for sure,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “No doubt, he’s been a huge part of this run, even without playing.”
The Lightning got to the final on the strength of their stars.
Nikita Kucherov (26 points), last season’s Hart Trophy winner, had five points in Game 1 against the Islanders and scored a clutch goal with nine seconds left in Game 2.
Brayden Point also had a five-point night in Game 1, has two overtime goals this postseason and has 25 points. He missed Games 3 and 5 of the conference final with injury but returned for Game 6.
Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who had a 3.82 goals-against average last season against the Blue Jackets, has cut that in half.
Defenseman Victor Hedman, who missed two playoff games last postseason with injury, scored the clinching goal in double overtime against the Bruins and has nine goals overall.
“I’m so happy for the whole group … A few of us went there in 2015, but to go back to the final with the Lightning again is an unreal experience,” Hedman said.
Now Tampa Bay will try to get past the Stars and coach Rick Bowness, a former Lightning assistant, to fulfill the promise that fell way short last season.
“They’re obviously playing a great game right now, a great team game,” Shattenkirk said. “There’s a lot of speed up front, as well as a lot of size. Their D corps can lock it down, but at the same time, they have a couple guys there than can join the rush and make you pay offensively. We know (Stars goalie Anton) Khudobin’s been playing very well.”