Tampa, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning, with a primary assist from a team that handled them during the regular season, are back in the Eastern Conference final for the third time in four years.
Thank you, Boston Bruins.
“I guess I can say it now. Boston set the bar for us, and we played them three times late in the year,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after his team’s 3-1 victory over the Bruins ended their second-round playoff series in five games.
“The first two times we played them, they literally manhandled us. … and we knew if we were going to go anywhere when we made the playoffs, or if we made the playoffs, that we had to be as good as Boston,” Cooper added.
“We beat them 4-0 (in the last meeting). I think that gave us a little hit of confidence. I guess a lot of confidence. … and, ultimately we carried that through into this playoff round.”
Brayden Point and J.T. Miller scored second-period goals and Anton Stralman added an empty-netter with 1:29 remaining to end any chance for a Boston comeback.
Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 27 shots — 14 in the final period — for the Lightning, who rebounded from losing the series opener at home to eliminate the Bruins in five games.
Boston won three of the four games between the teams during the regular season, finishing one point behind Tampa Bay for the Atlantic Division title and the No. 1 seed in the East.
The Bruins outlasted Toronto in seven games in the opening round of the playoffs. They scored six goals to beat the Lightning in Game 1, but had difficulty scoring after that.
Over the last three games, Boston failed to score an even-strength goal.
“You’ve got to give them credit. We’re a team that scored all year long with different players in and out of the lineup,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said.
“We scored against Toronto, so it’s not like after 89 games we forgot how to score or not play the right way,” Cassidy added. “I think their D corps is big and they move the puck. They did a good job of not allowing us to get inside.”
David Krejci scored on the power play in the final minute of the first period to give Boston a 1-0 lead that Point erased with his unassisted goal at 10:43 of the second.
Miller’s power-play goal broke the tie less than four minutes later, and Stralman added an empty-netter with 1:29 remaining.
“They’re a really good team. They have been all year,” Bruins winger Brad Marchand said. “They compete extremely hard, they have a lot of speed. They were better than we were in a lot of areas, one of them being puck battles and their pursuit. It showed up in the end.”
One day after being put “on notice” by the NHL for licking Lightning forward Ryan Callahan during Friday night’s overtime loss in Game 4, there were no more such incidents involving Marchand, who also made headlines after appearing to lick Toronto’s Leo Komarov in the first round.
Marchand was given an edict Saturday to stop licking opponents or subject himself to a possible fine or suspension for future incidents.
Cassidy said before the game that he had spoken with Marchand, delivering a simple, straight-forward message: “We need you on the ice, we need you playing. If part of his M.O. is to annoy people, find a different way to annoy them. Preferably by scoring some goals, that would be the best way.”
Afterward, Marchand shrugged off a question about his discussion the previous day with NHL senior vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell.
“It is what it is,” Marchand said. “I think it’s pretty stupid, the whole situation, but if that’s what they want to do, it’s what they want to do.”
The Lightning once again did a good job of containing Boston’s top line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Marchand. Although the trio combined for 23 points in the series (seven goals, 16 assists), about half that production (11 points) came in the Bruins’ 6-2 win in Game 1.
Bergeron and Charlie McAvoy assisted on Krejci’s goal, but Vasilevskiy came up big against the high-scoring line with four huge saves — one on Bergeron’s point-blank shot — in the closing minutes while Tampa Bay was killing off Boston’s last power-play opportunity.
The Bruins scored five goals over the final three games of the series, four of them on the power play and one short-handed.
“You can’t rely on special teams every night to win games,” Marchand said. “They help for sure, but you have to be able to produce 5-on-5.”
Western Conference semifinals
Vegas 3, (at) San Jose 0: Marc-Andre Fleury made 28 saves in his fourth shutout of the playoffs and the expansion Golden Knights are headed to the Western Conference Final in their inaugural season after beating the Sharks in Game 6 of their second-round series.
Jonathan Marchessault opened the scoring, Nate Schmidt added an insurance goal that was only detectable by replay and Cody Eakin sealed it with an empty-netter to help Vegas become just the third team in NHL history to win multiple series in its first season.
The Toronto Arenas won the Stanley Cup in the first postseason in league history in 1918 and St. Louis won two rounds to win the all-expansion West Division in 1968.
Next up for Fleury and Vegas will be the Western Conference Final against either Winnipeg or Nashville. The Jets lead that series 3-2 heading into Game 6 on Monday night.