Players and coaches shouted for joy after taking a team photo with Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. It happened minutes after they stepped onto the ice to celebrate Cirelli’s 13:18 overtime goal.
Tampa Bay has ended each of its three overtime streak wins and faces the Dallas Stars for the title. Only New York lasted more than five games, pushing the Lightning to their limits before their talented core put them to the final.
They are four Cup wins despite being without Stamkos all the post-season and missing the best center Brayden Point for two games against the Islanders. They can thank the defender Victor Hedman for scoring his ninth goal of the playoffs, Nikita Kucherov for playing 28:22 and Andrei Vasilveskiy making 26 saves while his teammates dotted the Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov with 48 shots.
Tampa Bay is trying to win its first championship since 2004. This is the first time in franchise history that the Lightning has not played a seven-game conference final streak.
It hasn’t been easy to get to this point against an opponent willing to play tug of war, block shots and wait to jump on the odds. The Islanders got their Game 5 break to extend the series when the Tampa Bay defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk fan out over a photo to pave the way for Jordan Eberlegoal of double overtime, but they were on the wrong side on Thursday.
The Islanders scored the first for the fifth straight game when Devon Toews beat the Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy at the far post with an enveloping goal at 4:15 in. In a playoff full of defensive goals, this is Toews’ second goal, although replays have shown seven Islanders players on the ice what should have been a penalty of too many men before scoring.
Appropriately, Tampa Bay’s leading defenseman equalized less than two minutes later. Victor Hedman skated towards the net somehow unmarked and buried a juicy rebound – one of the few Varlamov gave up the whole game. Hedman’s ninth goal of the postseason, which has three round robin games, tied him with Bobby Orr and Brad Park for the most in a single playoff by a defenseman.
“He’s the best I’ve ever seen him play”, Alex Killorn said about Hedman. “He’s showing up in the big moments here in the playoffs.”
With a decisive pass on Hedman’s goal, Nikita Kucherov took the lead in the playoffs with 26 points.
While the Islanders went 12 minutes without a shot on goal between the end of the first period and the middle of the second, the Lightning feared injuries later in the period. Cirelli collided knee to knee with Anders Lee when the Islanders captain tried to get out of the offensive zone and flew off. Cirelli skated cautiously and favored his right knee as he walked through the tunnel, but came back for third and was the OT hero.
Tampa Bay recovered Point after missing Games 3 and 5 with injury. Point played through obvious pain in Game 6, sometimes using a massager on the bench between shifts.
The Lightning has progressed despite failing to score in five power plays, including a double-minor on Andy Greene for top stick Kucherov with 23 seconds left in regulation which continued into overtime.
NOTES: Tampa Bay has improved to 10-1 in one-goal games and 6-1 in overtime this postseason. … Varlamov’s 46 saves were a career high in the playoffs. … With Point back, Carter Verhaeghe has been scratched. … Adam Pelech has been declared unfit to play, and Noah Dobson made his NHL playoff debut in his place, the Islanders once again dressing seven defensemen. Dobson, who last played in exhibition action in late July, became the first player born in the 2000s to dress for the Islanders in a playoff game.
The first game of the Stanley Cup Final against the Western Conference champions Dallas Stars is Saturday night.
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports