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Cirelli steps up, Lightning clinch East, and the perseverance of the Lightning

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Tampa Bay is back in the Stanley Cup Final, folks.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Islanders - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Lightning are going to the Stanley Cup Final.

Sorry, I had to type that first and stare at it for a few moments.

It has been five years since the Lightning organization played for the ultimate prize in hockey (16 years since they won it), and this time they’re hoping it ends on the right note.

In 2015, when the Lightning defeated the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, captain Steven Stamkos chose not to touch the Prince of Wales Trophy. They ended up losing in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks in the final. This time around, Tampa Bay didn’t care.

“Screw it,” Alex Killorn said. “Let’s grab it and we’ll celebrate this. And hopefully we’ll celebrate another one.”

This postseason has proved to be one of the toughest for any hockey team to consistently perform, but Tampa Bay has found a way. If their Eastern Conference Championship photo tells us anything, it’s that they believe in a collaborative effort, on and off the ice.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Islanders - Game Six Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Tampa Bay had 48 of their 52-person bubble group on the ice to celebrate. It included Stamkos, the black aces, support staff, coaching staff, anyone who made the same sacrifice of going into the bubble.

That should tell us all we need to know about this team, this organization.

As for the game, it is almost as if Anthony Cirelli read my piece from Wednesday morning (he most definitely did not). The young center’s third goal of the postseason came at the perfect moment Thursday night, and further added to his list of clutch goals throughout his hockey career.

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane, shall we?

In 2015, Cirelli scored the Memorial Cup clinching goal in overtime for the Oshawa Generals.

In 2017, Cirelli scored the OHL championship clinching goal in overtime for the Erie Otters.

Now adding to his list of clutch overtime goals: the 2020 Eastern Conference final clinching goal in overtime for the Lightning.

From chipping the puck in on a one-on-three forecheck during a line change, to beating Devon Toews and Mat Barzal to the puck, to pushing it behind the net for Barclay Goodrow to recover, to finding a soft spot of coverage in front of the net, and finally finishing off a brilliant pass from Goodrow, this goal was vintage Cirelli.

Stepping up in big moments is nothing new for the Woodbridge, Ontario native.

He hasn’t had the most productive postseason, and against Columbus and Boston he struggled to drive play like we are used to seeing from him, but there is never a moment of doubt about his compete level or desire to do anything possible to give his team an opportunity to win.

Cirelli’s chance to even be on the ice at this critical moment was in jeopardy earlier in the game after a scary knee-on-knee collision with Anders Lee, in the second period, sent the young center to the locker room.

Luckily, he returned to open the third period and looked fine as the game progressed.

Another factor that allowed Cirelli this opportunity was the play of Andrei Vasilevskiy. After allowing a weak goal early in the game to Toews, the Big Cat shut the Islanders out the rest of the way.

No save, though, was as critical as this one.

Tyler Johnson’s turnover is brutal, but sometimes you have to get bailed out by your goaltender, and that’s exactly what Vasilevskiy did.

Overall, the Lightning dominated this game. The team’s relentless forecheck and ability to cycle the puck in the offensive zone caused fits for the Islanders. According to Natural Stat Trick, in all situations, Tampa Bay out attempted (104-64), out shot (48-27), out chanced (40-25), generated more high danger opportunities (16-10), and generated better quality (xGF 63 percent) against the Islanders.

If we take a look at how individual players fared in generating offense, the Islanders didn’t have much going for them in this game. Whereas the vast majority of the Lightning were pushing play in a positive direction.

5v5 Shots, Score Adjusted
Micah Blake McCurdy, @IneffectiveMath, hockeyviz.com

Side note: Victor Hedman is a monster and has been the best defensemen in the entire playoffs. I won’t hear otherwise.

If it wasn’t for the play of Semyon Varlamov, New York doesn’t sniff overtime.

Still, this game (and series) tested Tampa Bay’s patience. Probably more so than the Columbus series (which was single-handedly kept alive by Joonas Korpisalo). Unlike the Blue Jackets, New York has some impressive offensive talent on their roster in Mat Barzal, Brock Nelson, Anthony Beauvillier, Jordan Eberle, and Anders Lee. Their patient approach in weathering the onslaught from Tampa Bay worked out in Games 3 and 5 (it also helped that Brayden Point was missing in both games), but bleeding chances and shots is a dangerous game to play against a team as deadly as the Lightning.

Regardless, through the frustrating style of play, the bad bounces, the power-play going cold after Game 3, offensive contributions from their depth players drying up over the past two games, and failing to close out the series in Game 5, this Lightning team persevered.

The nerves were still there though.

“Definitely had some nerves,” Ryan McDonagh said. “This is the conference finals. You should be a little nervous. You put forth so much effort. You want to do your part for the team. I think the belief in our group is so strong, and that’s not something that happens overnight. What we went through last year, having to stick together through the pause and come together as a group and refocus, and put our game in [a] position where we can be successful, no matter what we’re up against.”

Tampa Bay went through a gauntlet of stingy teams to secure the East (Columbus, Boston, and New York). They might have taken the Blue Jackets and Bruins out in five games each, but both of those series were hard fought, and the Islanders are the only team this postseason to take more than a game off of them (and the only team to defeat them in overtime).

There was plenty of talk on how the Lightning have struggled to close out games in past Eastern Conference Finals, but there is a fallacy in that line of thinking. This Lightning team isn’t like previous iterations, and they’ve shown it in every round of these playoffs.

They exorcised last year’s demons by thoroughly outplaying the Blue Jackets, they handled the President’s Trophy-winning Bruins by suffocating their offense, and they outmaneuvered the coach who defeated them in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final.

Every step of the way, the Lightning have overcome hurdles that previously stymied them.

Now, a new challenge awaits; the Dallas Stars.

If anything, their journey through the East should prepare them for a Stars team that is one of the best defensive units in the league. However, Dallas has also found their scoring touch in these playoffs and won’t be easy to shut down offensively. That said, if any team can do it, this Lightning team can.

Let’s. Go. Bolts.