TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Lightning are four wins away from becoming the first NHL team since 1983 to win three straight Stanley Cup championships.
"To get there the first time was a dream come true. To get there a second time, the next year, was a dream too. There was no way we were going back. To go a third time is unbelievable," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "To watch [the players'] growth, watch the pain ... I'm utterly impressed by what they do to win a hockey game. Nobody would fault them for saying, 'Hey, we won one or two.' But to come back and go for a third? I'm damn impressed."
But just like in a video game, the final boss is their toughest, most formidable opponent. The Colorado Avalanche went 12-2 in winning the Western Conference crown, including a perfect 7-0 away from Denver. They're averaging 4.64 goals scored per game. They're star-studded, deeply talented and as close to a juggernaut as these playoffs have produced.
"Colorado? Probably the best team in the League," said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who scored both goals in their 2-1 Game 6 win to eliminate the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday night.
"As you progress through the playoffs, each round gets tougher and each opponent gets tougher," he said. "There's a reason why there's two teams left, and it's because they're the two best teams in the league. We're going to have our hands full."
Stamkos said the Avalanche were a team the Lightning expected to have played already in the Stanley Cup Final. But Colorado failed to advance past the second round in three straight postseasons prior to this one.
"Now they've broken through. They have just an unbelievable mix of veteran players, star power, grinders, goalie. A huge challenge for us," Stamkos said. "We know how we have to play. It's no secret they have some electric players."
The Lightning earned their third straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final -- which starts Wednesday night in Denver -- with a comeback series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in which they trailed three games to two; a dominating sweep of the regular-season conference champion Florida Panthers; and a six-game series victory over the Rangers, winning four straight after falling behind 2-0.
The story of the Eastern Conference finals might be the story of the Stanley Cup Final if the Lightning three-peat: team defense. The Rangers scored one goal in each of the last three games of the series. Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy won the goalie duel with New York's Igor Shesterkin, posting a .955 save percentage (106 saves on 111 shots on goal) over the last four games of the series.
"It's really a point of emphasis with our team. We have enough skill and talent to score offensively. But we focus on our defensive game," Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. "If we win 2-1, we're happy with that. We don't gotta win by six goals. We want to defend first."
Stamkos said the Lightning's success on both sides of the puck comes down to trusting one another after two previous championships.
"I think it's just belief in ourselves and belief in the work you put in. But trust is the word," he said. "We trust every guy that goes over those boards to do his job. Whether you score a goal or not, it's the little things that you do. It's the defending. It's the blocked shots. It's the sacrifice. It's not complaining about your role. It's going out and playing as hard as you can for the guy that sits beside you in that locker room.
"That's why this group is so special. We don't know what's going to happen here in the next 10 to 14 days. But we know we're going to give it our all. It's gotten us this far again. It's just a special group and a treat to be part of."
The Lightning seem to be peaking at the right time defensively and are going to get a significant boost to their lineup in the Stanley Cup Final too. Cooper said injured star Brayden Point, who hasn't played since Game 7 against the Maple Leafs, might not play in Game 1 but is "extremely probable" to appear in the series.
"As the [conference finals] progressed, we got better and better," Killorn said. "I think tonight may have been our best game overall. I think that's important in a Stanley Cup run. It's typically the team that improves the most throughout the run that ends up winning."
The Lightning have won it all twice in a row. Can they make it a three-peat?
"Each guy is part of the process. That's what makes this team so special and tight and unique. We don't care how it gets done. It just needs to get done," Stamkos said. "We're going to the finals again. We have a chance to do something really special."