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Lightning’s Easy Dismantling of Panthers Has Them Primed for a 3rd Straight Cup | Bleacher Report

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Lightning’s Easy Dismantling of Panthers Has Them Primed for a 3rd Straight Cup | Bleacher Report

TAMPA, FL - MAY 22: Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) scores a goal and celebrates during the NHL Hockey game 3 of the 2nd round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers on May 22, 2022 at Amalie Arena in Tampa Florida (Photo by Andrew Bershaw / Icon_Sportswire)

Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

It was all over. Everyone knew it.

The Tampa Bay Lightning were a dazzling generational anomaly in winning consecutive Stanley Cups and one of just two teams in the salary-cap era to win back-to-back titles.

But given the requisite handful of money-related exits in the offseason, a raft of injuries to key players during the regular season, and the rise of several powerful wannabes across the Eastern Conference heading into the postseason, two boat parades were going to have to be good enough for a Gulf Coast fanbase still glistening in the afterglow of a Super Bowl win and a World Series appearance.

After all, coach Jon Cooper’s team finished tied for fourth-best in the East — and barely third in its own division — and would have to negotiate a playoff path blocked by both a Toronto team that had set a franchise record for points and a Florida team that had triumphantly placed a shiny Presidents’ Trophy on its shelf for the very first time.

So when the final period of Game 6 in the first round arrived with the Maple Leafs up 3-2 — in both the game and the series — antsy press-box types were undoubtedly getting started on the eulogies.

“Thanks for the memories, boys. Better luck next year. Etc., etc., etc.”

Wait 20 minutes, press send.

Insist “I told you so” to anyone within earshot.

But it was right about then, on the evening of May 12, that Cooper and Co. stopped the presses and provided their doubters with an updated bulletin of springtime hockey reality: When it matters most, and until proved otherwise, the Lightning are the best team in the NHL.

Still.

Chris O’Meara / Associated Press

Rather than going gently into an arid mid-Florida night, the two-time champs rallied to force OT before winning on a Brayden Point putback. They then headed over 1,300 miles north two days later to prolong a half-century’s worth of despair with a pair of goals scored by a kid from the Toronto suburbs.

And at that point, even the most optimistic Panthers fan had to know what was coming next.

Again.

Twelve months after a first-round duel bedeviled by iffy goaltending and impotent special teams, Florida experienced a distinctly familiar scenario as the Lightning stripped home-ice advantage with 4-1 and 2-1 wins in Sunrise and made it academic with 5-1 and 2-0 triumphs in Tampa.

The statistical kingdom the Panthers had built from October to May — the league’s best overall record (122 points), its best home win percentage (.829) and its most prolific offense (4.11 goals per game) —was hastily overthrown within a week by a team showing precisely zero signs of banner fatigue.

The consistently heroic trio of Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos have combined for point-per-game production through two series, while recently called-upon newbies like Ross Colton and Nicholas Paul — alongside ageless Cup-chaser Corey Perry — chipped in with the sorts of right-place, right-time money plays that had been the purview of cap-prompted departees Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman.

It was Paul’s pair that sank his hometown Maple Leafs in Game 7, Colton’s goal in the waning seconds to win Game 2 against Florida and Perry that kicked things off in Game 3. In fact, through 11 games against Toronto and the Panthers, they ‘ ve combined for 12 goals and eight assists of vital reinforcement.

Some old names. Some new names. Same results.

“It was the little things,” a shell-shocked Florida interim coach Andrew Brunette said.

“And that’s what they do so well, that’s why they have won a couple of Cups. It’s the little things. It’s a little face-off, it’s shorthanded trying to score out of nothing. It’s special teams.

“It’s all these little things that they excel at.”

And if all else fails, they’ve got the ultimate game-changer on the backline, too.

Chris O’Meara / Associated Press

To the surprise of exactly no one who’s paid attention for two years, Russian-born goaltending magician Andrei Vasilevskiy has been up to his familiar tricks. He has won six straight games since the Game 5 loss to Toronto and stopped 211 of 218 shots in his direction for a .968 save percentage.

In fact, the 27-year-old has somehow accessed another puck-stopping level beyond the one that had already netted him a Conn Smythe Trophy last year and saw him allow just seven goals across eight series-clinchers — including five shutouts — in 2020 and 2021 combined.

He made 30 saves at a hostile Scotiabank Arena to eliminate the Maple Leafs, then allowed a single goal in each of the first three games to start the second-rounder with the Panthers before a perfect, 49-save exclamation point in Game 4.

Clearly, he and his teammates aren’t satisfied with only two titles, which is really bad news for everyone who’s still playing.

Neither the Carolina Hurricanes nor the New York Rangers have nearly the firepower Vasilevskiy faced while exasperating the league’s top two regular-season offenses. And the longer that Eastern semifinal goes, the easier it’ll be for Tampa Bay to assemble something close to a healthy lineup.

Though the remaining Western quartet of Colorado, St. Louis, Calgaryand Edmonton all outpaced the Hurricanes and Rangers in offensive production over 82 games, none but the Blues have seen a Stanley Cup Final in the last 15 seasons, giving the Lighting a decided crunch-time edge.

So when push comes to shove, go ahead. You tell them they’re not winning again.

We dare you.

“You could say you can lean back on experience and this and that. But each game in the playoffs, it can go either way,” Perry said. “One bounce here, one bounce there, a big body check turns the momentum, a big (penalty kill), you can not lean on that stuff. That just happens.

“So you just go day in and day out and take it where it goes.”

Eight more wins and that destination takes care of itself.

Game. Set. Dynasty.

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