Thanks to Andrei Vasilevskiy and another stellar defensive performance, the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning are headed back to the Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s becoming a broken record, but it’s not how many you put in the net, it’s how many you keep out,” coach Jon Cooper said Friday night after Vasilevskiy had 18 saves and benefited from exceptional play in front of him to beat the New York Islanders 1-0 in Game 7 of their NHL playoff semi-final.
“It’s a hard lesson to learn, especially the players coming up today and the skill, the rules getting put into place that open up skill and to skate and to score,” Cooper added. “But when you get to the playoffs it’s about defending.”
Yanni Gourde scored a short-handed goal, giving Vasilevskiy all the offensive support needed to advance the Cup Final matchup against the surprising Montreal Canadiens, who upset the Vegas Golden Knights in the other semi-final.
Game 1 is Monday night in Tampa.
“Just a great effort by the whole team. ... That was just a textbook Game 7,” Vasilevskiy said.
Gourde beat Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov from the slot off a nifty pass from Anthony Cirelli at 1:49 of the second period, culminating a sequence that began with defenceman Ryan McDonagh blocking a shot at the other end.
“It’s disappointing because that was an opportunity for us to do something against them. We weren’t paying enough attention and it ended up in the back of the net,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said.
“I thought we managed the first period and it was pretty quiet. And then they got the short-handed goal and that energized the building,” Trotz added. “In the third period we left it all out there. This group has so much character. They are feeling the pain right now.”
Vasilevskiy turned away seven shots in the final period to finish his fifth career playoff shutout – fourth this post-season. It marked the first time in NHL history a Game 7 ended 1-0 with a short-handed goal.
Vasilevskiy, vying for his second Vezina Trophy in three years, also beat the Islanders 8-0 in Game 5 and shut out Florida and Carolina to clinch series wins over Panthers and Hurricanes in the first two rounds.
“He’s the best in the world for a reason,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “He’s the steady rock that allows us to go out there and play with pace, play with confidence, play with a lead, and I thought we did an unbelievable job of that.
“After we got that goal we just kept pushing,” Stamkos added. “Vasy made some big saves when he had to, but guys had huge blocks at the end of the game and it was so nice to be in front of our home fans and have that atmosphere and get that win.”
The Lightning improved to 14-0 in games following a playoff loss since beginning last year’s championship run. They also bounced back from losses to beat the Islanders in Games 2 and 5 and haven’t suffered consecutive playoff losses since being swept by Columbus in the first round in 2019.
The Islanders, who were aiming for their first Stanley Cup Final berth in 37 years, forced a winner-take-all showdown by rallying to win Game 6 on Anthony Beauvillier’s overtime goal.
But with the Lightning playing relentless defence, while also outshooting New York 31-18, opportunities were limited Friday night.
Tampa Bay reached the Cup Final for the fourth time in franchise history despite not getting big nights offensively from playoff scoring leader Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, whose streak of consecutive games with at least one goal ended at nine – one shy of the NHL playoff record.
Kucherov played despite missing most of Game 6 with an injury. Point failed to score a goal for just the second time in the past 13 games.
New York’s season ended with a playoff loss to Tampa Bay for the second straight year. The teams met in last year’s Eastern Conference final, with the Lightning advancing in six games.
“I said to them that this group is special. Their character, their work ethic, their will...it’s undeniable. It’s so strong. This group believed that we could do this,” Trotz said.
“This team won’t be defined by one game. They will be defined by all the games. You’ve gotta keep going back,” Trotz added. “It’s no different than Tampa Bay. They had some heartache before they were able to win a Cup and now they have a chance to win two.”
I CAN GO
Kucherov left Game 6 after a taking a hit to the lower back from Islanders defenceman Scott Mayfield. His status for Friday night was uncertain until just before faceoff. Lightning defenceman Erik Cernak also returned to the lineup after missing the previous two games.
The Islanders fell to 4-6 all-time in Game 7s, 4-5 on the road. It was first Game 7 the team has played in the semi-final round since facing Philadelphia in 1975. The Islanders were trying to earn their first Stanley Cup Final berth since 1984.
Point was trying to match Reggie Leach’s playoff record with goals in 10 consecutive games in the same post-season. Leach had a 10-game streak for the Philadelphia Flyers in 1976. With 14 goals in 18 games, Point has a chance to become the first player to lead the league in playoff goals in consecutive seasons since Jari Kurri in 1987 and 1988.