And then there were two. With a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 6 on Thursday night, the Tamp Bay Lightning clinched their series with the New York Islanders four games to two and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals to face the Dallas Stars. Tampa was clearly the better of the two teams throughout, but after their 8-2 cakewalk in the series opener there was plenty of tension to go around. The Isles, after all, were one shot away from forcing a Game 7 and once you get there, well, anything can happen. So full credit to Barry Trotz and his gang: they got as far as they possibly could, but they were simply bested by the better team. There’s no shame in that.
As for the specifics of the game itself, the Isles actually opened the scoring thanks to a sweet wrap-around effort from Devon Toews just 4:15 into the opening period. Lightning fans, who might have been a bit tense after the overtime loss in Game 5, must have felt their stomach drop just a bit. It’s one thing to play a tight-checking, low-scoring affair with the Isles but it’s another altogether to have to chase them down. Luckily for them, Victor Hedman evened up the score less than three minutes later when he pounced on a greasy rebound following a rare defensive breakdown from the Isles:
It’s a simple give-and-go play from Hedman, and you’d think New York would have trouble missing the 6’6 rearguard but, alas. Maybe you can quibble with Semyon Varlamov giving that rebound up into the slot but not a single Isles player comes close to touching Hedman as he cruises into the slot, so they were asking for trouble regardless.
If the thought was that the Lightning would ease up after equalizing, you should know that they only seemed to grow more inspired. At one point, the shots were 24-8 (!) in Tampa’s favour. I mean, look at this GameFlow:
Most of what kept this game tied was Varlamov’s excellence, particularly in keeping Tampa’s top line of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat at bay. Varlamov’s sliding save on Palat at the end of some nice passing from the Tampa trio early in the second was great, but he better himself only moments later with a two save sequence against the Tampa power-play.
That’s not to say the Isles were without chances: Cal Clutterbuck missed a glorious chance from the slot off the rush, and Andrei Vasilevskiy was good when called upon. He just didn’t have to exert himself quite as often as his counterpart in the New York net.
As the third period wound down, and it became apparent that we would be headed for extra time, the Isles decided to make it interesting for themselves by sending the Lightning to a four minute power play. As fate would have it, New York actually had the best chance when Brock Nelson picked Tyler Johnson and had a clear breakaway from the red line in:
Nelson made his move and everything, Vasilevskiy just sticks with him the whole way. I suspect the Islanders’ forward will have a hard time forgetting about that one for a while to come.
The Lightning winner came courtesy of Anthony Cirelli, and it wasn’t the prettiest goal you’ve ever seen but it was symbolic of the constant pressure Tampa exerted throughout the series. Eventually the Isles were bound to break:
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: this New York Islanders team reminded me a lot of the 2017 Ottawa Senators. They were not the best regular season team, but something clicked in the play-offs and they came within a breath of playing for the NHL’s biggest prize. I doubt Islanders fans want to hear it today, but in time they’ll look back on this run with a lot of fondness. They only come along so often.
So, this means the Stanley Cup Finals are set. Game 1 goes Saturday night. Should be a doozy.