The Tampa Bay Lightning played their best game of the Stanley Cup First Round on Wednesday to traverse a hurdle that has been too high for many defending Stanley Cup champions in recent years.
The Lightning defeated the Florida Panthers 4-0 at Amalie Arena to win the best-of-7 series in six games, becoming the fifth NHL team since 2011, and the first since 2018, to advance to the second round the year after winning the Stanley Cup.
They proved their championship mettle with their Game 6 performance and showed what coach Jon Cooper was hoping they would: that they’re willing to do what it takes to be the kind of special team that isn’t satisfied with winning the Stanley Cup once.
“When you make the playoffs you need it from everybody and the players gave it,” Cooper said. “They get all the credit in the world. They stayed in the fight and they worked their tails off and they were rewarded for it.
“The boys played like champions.”
The Lightning, the No. 3 seed in the Discover Central Division, will play either the top-seeded Carolina Hurricanes or No. 4 Nashville Predators in the second round. The Hurricanes visit the Predators in Game 6 of their first-round series Thursday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN360, TVAS, BSSO). Carolina leads the best-of-7 series 3-2 and would host Game 7 on Saturday if necessary.
But the way the Lightning played in Game 6, especially because it followed a 4-1 loss in Game 5 on Monday, by far their worst game of the series, was a definition of how championship teams compete.
It’s hard to think that will change regardless of their second-round opponent.
“It was almost a clinical game in terms of executing the game plan,” captain Steven Stamkos said.
Tampa Bay scored early (forward Pat Maroon gave it the lead at 6:16 of the first period), stayed disciplined (took two penalties and killed off each), scored on the power play (Stamkos at 13:27 of the second period for a 2-0 lead), limited turnovers, forechecked aggressively, got perfect goaltending (29 saves by Andrei Vasilevskiy) and locked it down in the third period, scoring two more goals (by center Brayden Point and forward Alex Killorn) to seal the win.
“It was our best effort by far in the playoffs in the biggest games we played so far,” Stamkos said. “That’s what experienced teams do in those situations, they step up when it’s time to step up. It was a 60-minute effort, and that’s what it takes to close out series.”
The Lightning have won five consecutive best-of-7 playoff series without going to Game 7. They have won three in a row in six games after losing Game 5, including against the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference Final and the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final last year.
It was the 15th time in Stanley Cup Playoff history a team has won at least five straight such series and the first since the Los Angeles Kings from 2011-13.
“We have a lot of returners that know how to play under pressure, know how to win,” Maroon said. “We could have folded, but the boys have been working hard. It’s nice to see.”
The Kings won four straight series in six games or fewer to win the Stanley Cup in 2012 and the first round in 2013 in five games.
Their run of six consecutive series wins ended in the 2013 Western Conference Final against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Pittsburgh Penguins never went more than two consecutive rounds without having to win a Game 7 when they won nine straight playoff series from 2016-18.
The New York Islanders hold the record with 14 consecutive best-of-7 series wins without requiring a Game 7 from 1980-84.
“You’ve probably heard the fourth one is the toughest one to win in a series, and when you have a chance to do it you don’t want to waste them,” Cooper said. “Florida didn’t want to lose on home ice. We didn’t want to come back here and say just because we’re on home ice we’re going to win. That’s a flawed way of thinking. We had a plan set and the players, it was 60 minutes of just sheer will and compete. To win in this league that’s what you need.
“It is the compete level that gets you there. You can’t let it go because if you get outwilled in a game, probably not going to win. Our boys would not let that happen.”