TAMPA – Champions take on different characteristics, but once a team wins a championship, that experience goes a long way in defining how hard it is to dethrone the said team.
The Tampa Bay Lightning showed that on Friday night in the 1-0 Game 7 conquest of the New York Islanders in the NHL semifinal at Amalie Arena. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 18 shots as he went to 13-0 in the playoffs after a loss as the defense gave up only 12 shots before the Islanders left the empty net with about 2:30 left and trailing 1-0.
“Last year, we just found we could win in different ways,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper. “The warrior mentality these guys have was really present tonight after a really tough loss the other night. You just can’t count them out though. They have just learned to defend and another masterful performance on the defensive end tonight.”
Vasilevskiy was predictably under major duress in that final 2:30 when New York pulled goalie Semyon Varlamov. He saw six pucks, one-half of all the defense allowed the Islanders for the first 57:30 of the game.
“It took a lot to get here. The heartbreak in 2015 getting all the way to the final and losing. 2016 going to Game 7 against Pitt and losing that one. In 2018 against this very Barry Trotz coaching, he beat us in Game 7 in this building. The heartbreak to Columbus in 2019. It was all building blocks to get to here. You can’t predict it’s going to happen. That’s why the vision of everyone in this organization to know it’s going to happen. Hey, look, we haven’t won the Stanley Cup yet. We are like Montreal, we are still chasing this one.” – Lightning coach Jon Cooper
The Lightning pitched a defensive gem with 21 blocked shots as sticks were outstretched as well as players beating Islanders to positions as Tampa Bay defenders were throwing themselves in front of pucks on separate occasions.
“It was a great effort by the whole team, great blocks and after the goal, we kept pushing and closed the door,” said Vasilevskiy. “In the last game, we tried to defend and tonight we tried to attack all the way. That was a textbook Game 7.”
Vasilevskiy was on his game as he had a couple of blocker saves and was in position to stretch and turn away good Islanders’ looks. His mastery coupled with the defense in front of him led to his fourth series-clinching shut out in a row.
“Hockey is a team sport,” explained Cooper. “In the end, you need the goalie to make the stops when at times everything else breaks down. Vasy is showing time and time again that he can do that and when you can elevate your game and have the mental fortitude to grind through series-clinching potential season-ending games – and again we are throwing around the word ‘special.’ Vasy is special.”
The lone goal of the game came early in the second period with New York on the power play.
Tampa Bay’s Anthony Cirelli ran down a puck in the neutral zone and carried it and three New York defenders into the right corner. He then flipped a pass through the legs of the Islanders’ Josh Bailey to Yanni Gourde, who was skating toward the net.
Gourde then went top shelf on Varlamov for a 1-0 Lightning lead at 1:49 in the second and that would prove to be enough to push Tampa Bay back into the Stanley Cup Finals for the second consecutive season.
“We had two or three great blocked shots and that goal doesn’t happen if those guys don’t go down and block those shots,” said Gourde. “Mac (Ryan McDonough) was real patient and made a great pass to Killer (Alex Killorn) to Tony (Anthony Cirelli) and he dragged three guys to him, put it in the slot for me and I was patient enough to get the goal there.”
It was a tremendous irony that after a first period played at even strength, the Lightning’s lone goal came short-handed after Barclay Goodrow was hit with a cross-check just 50 seconds into the second period.
“It’s amazing to see the effort everyone puts in,” Steven Stamkos said. “We knew it was going to be a tough series. They played amazing. It was a seven game series and the final game was 1-0 and can go either way. The way these guys stuck with it. You get rewarded when you stick with the plan.”
Much of the day’s conversation was about whether Nikita Kucherov would indeed play in Game 7. Stamkos said when he Kucherov came on the ice, you could hear it fire up the fans as they were chanting, “Kuch.”
“There was no question if I would play or not,” said Kucherov. “You have to sacrifice yourself in these moments and play with the boys. I felt good today.”