Game Six of Rangers-Lightning felt like the perfect case study for two key differences between the two teams. First, there’s the difference in fatigue between a team that played four games in the last round and a team that went to seven. And second, there’s the difference between a team that has Steven Stamkos and one that doesn’t have anybody who can touch the Lightning captain’s longevity, experience, and goal-scoring prowess.
The game that took Tampa to the Stanley Cup Final for the third straight year felt a lot like a soccer match, particularly in the first half, as neither team scored any goals. The Lightning locked up the Rangers and limited their shots while, on the other end, New York goalie Igor Shesterkin made save after save to keep his team’s hopes alive. And not unlike a tense, high-stakes soccer match, all it took was one break from a legendary striker to completely shift everyone’s mood. Midway through the second period, Stamkos snatched the puck while exiting his own zone. Crossing to the top of the circle at the other end, he fired a shot and, shockingly, the puck avoided Shesterkin as it moved across him and struck the inside of the net on the far side. It was yet another timely goal for a man who’s given the Lightning 522 of them across 1,033 games in his career.
It wasn’t all smooth from there, though. It was Stamkos, in fact, who was also indirectly responsible for the goal that brought the Rangers back into it. The game stayed 1-0 through the majority of the third, but a little callback to the rare Stamkos fight that electrified the Bolts at the end of Game 5 got the captain in trouble at a crucial time. A bit of contact on the young Ranger Alexis Lafreniere sent Stamkos to the box for holding with eight minutes left in the period.
And while he was in there, a rocket from Frank Vatrano tied the game.
Since the beginning of Game Three, the Rangers had only managed to score once in 5-on-5 action. They were decisively, consistently overwhelmed by the Lightning’s sturdiness when the numbers were even and failed to find the cracks that would test Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal. Stamkos’s small error gave them the advantage that they desperately needed if they were to keep playing this season.
A lot of players would respond negatively to this kind of self-inflicted setback. They would struggle to regain their composure and would return to the ice unable to let the mistake fly away as they played too aggressively, or too anxiously, or otherwise unlike themselves. But Stamkos is different. While a lot of the Rangers’ charisma comes from their youth, with an average age of 26.7 and a bunch of key contributors who had never won even one game in the playoffs before, Stamkos made a strong case for the value of having more NHL experience than anyone on the other team. In his 14th year, and his 111th playoff game, Stamkos needed just 21 seconds to erase the impact of that Vatrano goal.
After a beautiful breakout pass by Ondrej Palat found Nikita Kucherov, Stamkos broke out into a determined sprint to the net, leaving Jacob Trouba in the dust and opening up tons of ice where he could receive his teammate’s dish. This wasn’t the prettiest finish you’ll ever see, as the puck pinballed back between Shesterkin and then Stammer’s leg. But what matters is that it was the game winner, unlocked by Stamkos’s ability to pounce on a sudden reversal in the action.
“I obviously was a little disappointed in myself for taking the penalty,” Stamkos said afterward. “It’s easy to say now, but for some reason I wasn’t as rattled as I usually am in those situations. I was just confident in our group that we would find a way, whether it was in regulation or was in overtime. We deserved to win the game. That was the feeling we had from puck drop.”
At 32 years old, this has already been Stamkos’s best postseason yet, as that second goal on Saturday—his ninth—set a new career high for scoring. In the Lightning’s 2020 run to the Cup, he was injured and most powerful as a symbol, scoring only once to inspire the team but otherwise leading from the outside. In 2021, he played well but wasn’t particularly visible in the late rounds, his play outdone by the spectacular hot streak that Brayden Point enjoyed. But during this run, with Point now the absent one due to injury, the Lightning need their captain more than ever, and he’s been there every time they’ve called.
One of the ads that the NHL keeps running during the playoffs, set to a cover of “The Times They Are A-Changin,'” shows the lineage of various Cup-winning captains who are made to look like they’re passing the trophy off to each other after celebrating with it. The final image, of course, is Stamkos, with a line that, purposely or not, heavily implies that he’ll be losing it to a successor this season.
I don’t know if he took this personally, but all through this postseason, Stamkos has been playing like a man who never, ever wants to relinquish Lord Stanley. And now that he’s led the Lightning to four straight wins, and ten out of their last twelve, the impossible dream of a three-peat is within their grasp. They’ll fight for it against the Avalanche beginning on Wednesday.