Defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning return to Eastern Finals


TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Jon Cooper had every reason to be confident that the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning could stick with his bid for a hat-trick.

“Our story is not over,” the coach said earlier this month as his team teetered on the brink of first-round elimination against the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We have a lot left in us, we can feel it.”

Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the reasons.

Defending Conn Smythe Trophy winner has won six straight since the Lightning trailed the Maple Leafs 3-2 in their opening series, including a Game 7 gem in Toronto and a four-way sweep games against the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. .

Next up is Tampa Bay’s sixth trip to the Eastern Finals in eight years, where they will face either the Carolina Hurricanes or the New York Rangers.

“We found a recipe that obviously got us further in the playoffs, and especially in the last 2 1/2 years now, and we want to continue,” captain Steven Stamkos said after the 2- 0 Monday night. The win over Florida gave the Lightning their first playoff sweep in 11 years.

“It’s the most fun, heartbreaking and nerve wracking time of the year, but it’s just an amazing feeling,” Stamkos added. “You can’t really describe it unless you’ve been through it, and this band certainly lived it.”

Vasilevskiy made 49 saves and had the sixth shutout in his last seven decisive series wins.

Since allowing three or more goals in each of Tampa Bay’s first six games against Toronto, he’s allowed four in total in the last five outings.

“It’s my job to give our boys the chance to win, and I think we’ve done a good job of doing that the whole series,” Vasilevskiy said, downplaying how he repeatedly played during the game. race for his team’s championship. .

“Nothing special. I think that’s just the way the whole team plays in these games. The whole series has been just constant blocked shots, sacrifices and boys literally breaking their bones to stop the puck,” added the goalie. “Just such a great effort from everyone on our team. It’s obviously not just me. I’m just trying to do my job the best I can. can. “

Pat Maroon, chasing his fourth straight Stanley Cup title, broke a scoreless tie just over six minutes into the third period. Ondrej Palat added an empty-netter with 22 seconds left for Lightning, who had two goals disallowed in 48 seconds of the second period.

The Lightning joined the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens as the only franchises to win at least 10 consecutive playoffs. Maroon, who won with St. Louis in 2019 before signing with Tampa Bay two years ago, was part of 14 straight streak wins.

“I’ve been lucky enough to play with two very good teams in recent years, but this team has been very impressive,” Maroon said.

“Our way of competing. The way we stick with every game, we never got out of it. … It was great to see what we’ve been through the last few years,” Maroon added, “and it’s amazing to be a part of it.”

Tampa Bay is the third franchise to win at least 10 consecutive playoffs. Montreal did it twice, winning 13 straight from 1976 to 1980 and 10 in a row from 1956 to 1960. The New York Islanders won a record 19 straight from 1980 to 1984.

Two more wins in the series and the Lightning will become the first team to win three consecutive Stanley Cup titles since the Islanders won four in a row from 1980 to 1983.

“Twelve would sound even better, wouldn’t it?” said forward Alex Killorn.

“It’s impressive. I know, Coop mentioned it, and then Patty’s got 14. So he’s got one, but it’s special to be part of this group,” Killorn added. I said, with Vassy. I think there are a lot of players on this team who will become very good players, Hall of Fame players. So I’m just happy to be a part of it, to be honest.

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