EDMONTON, Alberta – Five years after socially distancing from the Prince of Wales Trophy and losing in the Stanley Cup Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning got its hands on and arms around it to embrace its Eastern Conference championship.
Anthony Cirelli scored in overtime and Tampa Bay beat the New York Islanders 2-1 in Game 6 of the Eastern final Thursday night to go back to the Cup Final for the first time since 2015, where it'll face the Dallas Stars. Injured captain Steven Stamkos, who wouldn't even stand near the trophy then out of superstition, walked onto the ice Thursday to accept it along with the Lightning's entire traveling party.
"It didn't work last time, so we tried obviously touching the trophy this year," alternate captain Victor Hedman said. "That was a no-brainer for us. We're not superstitious but obviously didn't touch it last time, so this year we did. That's the end of it. We won one trophy and now we're going for the next one."
Stamkos, Hedman, Alex Killorn and St. Paul native Ryan McDonagh were the first players to shake deputy commissioner Bill Daly's hand inside the NHL bubble that has had zero positive coronavirus test results. It mattered to the team's leaders to have Stamkos there even though he hasn't played since February.
"We wanted all the team captains up there and wanted Steven a part of it," McDonagh said. "He's been a huge part of this run even without playing. Definitely a special moment for that group and then to get the whole team involved: great moment."
Tampa Bay ended each of its three series victories in overtime. Winger Patrick Maroon, the only player in the Final in back-to-back years after winning with St. Louis in 2019, deadpanned, "My fingernails are gone."
Only New York lasted more than five games, pushing the Lightning to its limit.
"We got close," Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. "We could see the mountaintop, but we couldn't get to the mountaintop."
Now the Lightning is four wins from that mountaintop despite being without Stamkos all postseason and missing top center Brayden Point for two games against the Islanders. The Lightning can thank defenseman Hedman for scoring his ninth goal of the playoffs, Nikita Kucherov for playing 28:22 and Andrei Vasilveskiy making 26 saves while his teammates peppered Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov with 48 shots.
And Cirelli, who at 13:18 of overtime scored the Lightning's biggest goal in years.
"The emotions are so high," he said. "We worked all year. Our goal is to be playing for the Stanley Cup. We're here now."