By STEPHEN WHYNO AP Hockey Writer
EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Five years after socially distancing from the Prince of Wales Trophy and losing in the Stanley Cup Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning got their hands on and arms around it to embrace their Eastern Conference championship.
Anthony Cirelli scored in overtime and Tampa Bay beat the New York Islanders 2-1 in Game 6 of the East final Thursday night and 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 on to the ice 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 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.”
Players and coaches screamed with joy after taking a team photo with Daly. That came minutes after they streamed on to the ice to celebrate Cirelli’s goal 13:18 into overtime.
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 finger nails are gone.”
Only New York lasted more than five games, pushing the Lightning to their limits before their talented core got them into the final.
“We got close,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “We could see the mountain top, but we couldn’t get to the mountain top.”
Now the Lightning are four wins from that mountaintop despite being without Stamkos all postseason and missing top center Brayden Point for two games against the Islanders. They 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 came back from an injury scare to score the Lightning’s biggest goal in years.
“The emotions are so high,” Cirelli said. “We worked all year. Our goal is to be playing for the Stanley Cup. We’re here now. I think it’s every kid’s dream to be in this situation. I think we’re excited and we’re ready to go.”
Cirelli appeared to injure his right knee on a collision with Islanders captain Anders Lee in the second period. He returned in the third, and coach Jon Cooper said Cirelli was “doing it basically on one leg.”
“Trying not to disclose injuries but it was pretty clear on that,” Cooper said. “For him to come back was pretty remarkable.”
Tampa Bay is trying to win its first championship since 2004. It’s the first time in franchise history the Lightning didn’t play a seven-game series in the conference finals.
It wasn’t easy getting to this point against an opponent willing to rope-a-dope, block shots and wait to pounce on chances. The Islanders got their break in Game 5 to prolong the series when Tampa Bay defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk fanned on a shot to pave the way for Jordan Eberle’s double-overtime goal, but they were on the wrong side of it Thursday.
“We had a chance to win,” said Varlamov, whose 46 saves were a single-season playoff careeer high. “Disappointing, of course. We want to go to the final and I think we had a chance to go to the final and play there, but we lost. Season’s over.”
NOTES: Hedman’s ninth goal tied him with Bobby Orr and Brad Park for the third most among defensemen in a single postseason. … Tampa Bay improved to 10-1 in one-goal games and 6-1 in overtime this postseason. … With Point back after missing Game 5 with injury, Carter Verhaeghe was scratched. … Adam Pelech was ruled unfit to play, and Noah Dobson made his NHL playoff debut in his place with the Islanders again dressing seven defensemen. Dobson, who last played in exhibition action in late July, became the first player born in the 2000s to dress for the Islanders in a playoff game.
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Western Conference-champion Dallas Stars is Saturday night.
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