Defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning is back in the East Finals

Jon Cooper had every reason to be confident that two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning could keep his bid for a three-peat alive.

“Our story isn’t over yet,” the coach said earlier this month as his team teetered on the brink of elimination in the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We still have a lot in us, we feel.”

Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the reasons.

The reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner has won six straight games since the Lightning fell 3-2 behind the Maple Leafs in their opening round series, including a jewel in Game 7 in Toronto and a four-game win over the Florida Panthers in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference.

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

“We found a recipe that has obviously taken us far into the playoffs, especially in the last 2 1/2 years, and we want to keep it that way,” said captain Steven Stamkos after the 2-0 victory over Florida on Monday evening gave the Lightning their first win in a playoff series in 11 years.

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

Vasilevskiy made 49 saves and made the sixth shutout in his last seven straight wins.

Since scoring three or more goals in each of Tampa Bay’s first six games against Toronto, he has given up four total games in the last five.

“My job is to give our guys a chance to win and I think we’ve done that pretty well all series,” Vasilevskiy said, consistently downplaying his style of play throughout his team’s championship run.

“Nothing special. I think it’s just the way the whole team plays in these games. The whole series was just constantly blocking shots, making sacrifices and guys literally breaking bones trying to stop the puck,” added the keeper.”Just such a great performance from everyone in our team. It’s obviously not just me. I’m just trying to do my job as best as I can.”

Pat Maroon, who is seeking his fourth consecutive Stanley Cup title, scored a goalless tie just over six minutes into the third period. Ondrej Palat added an empty goal for Lightning with 22 seconds remaining, who had failed to acknowledge two goals within 48 seconds of the second period.

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

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

“The way we compete. The way we stay there in every game, we never get out. … It’s been great to see what we’ve been through over the past few years,” Maroon added, “and it’s incredible to be a part of it.”

Tampa Bay is the third franchise to have won at least 10 consecutive playoff series. Montreal has done it twice, 13 in a row from 1976-80 and 10 straight from 1956-60. The New York Islanders won a record 19 consecutive wins from 1980 to 1984.

Two more straight wins, and the Lightning will become the first team to win three straight Stanley Cup titles since the Islanders won four straight from 1980-83.

“Twelve would sound even better, right?” Forward Alex Killorn said.

“It’s impressive. I know Coop mentioned that, and then Patty has 14. So he’s got the ball, but it’s special to be a part of this group,” Killorn added. “Like I said, with Vassy. I think there are a lot of players on this team who are going to go down in the Hall of Famers as some pretty good players. To be honest, I’m just happy to be a part of it.”


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Bobby Allyn

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