NEW YORK (AP) — Six games into the Eastern Conference finals, the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning have taught hockey fans to expect the unexpected.
Two of the league’s best offensive teams, they’ve played tight defensive games, had blowouts and even a shootout. They have looked good at times, bad at others. They have shown skill and made ugly mistakes.
It’s been an outstanding series that is coming down to a winner-take-all contest Friday night at Madison Square, where the Presidents’ Trophy winning Rangers have won seven consecutive Game 7s dating to 1992.
The prize this time is a trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
Don’t bother making a prediction. Every game has been different. Teams that seemingly have the momentum get beaten, even on home ice.
“The one thing is it’s the seventh game and I don’t think there’s any secrets between the two teams anymore,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Wednesday. “It’s just going to be one of those games where it’s strap ‘em up and play and let’s see who comes out on top.”
The Rangers forced the deciding game on Tuesday night as Derick Brassard had a hat trick and two assists to back a 36-save performance by Henrik Lundqvist in a 7-3 win in Tampa. The effort came just two nights after Ben Bishop and the Lightning shut down New York in a 2-0 win at the Garden.
“Everything that’s happened before this point, it doesn’t really matter,” Rangers center Derek Stepan said. “We’re looking at it as one game against a team that’s played really good hockey through the series; both teams have. And I think both teams feel like at times they haven’t played as well. So it’s been a back-and-forth series, but now it just comes down to one game. ... It’s in our own building.”
The good news for both teams is that they are going to get an extra day to rest. Both need it.
The Lightning have been battling illness in the locker room, and both teams have been banged up as the series has progressed and hitting has become more intense.
This will be the second Game 7 for both teams. Tampa Bay needed seven to beat Detroit in the opening round and the Rangers rallied from a 3-1 deficit against Washington in the conference semifinals. Both teams won the deciding game at home, with New York needing an overtime goal by Stepan.
“They’re a team that when their backs are against the wall, they’ve played well,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said Wednesday. “But we’ve also shown, in the short history our team has been together, we’ve been able to bounce back.”
The Lightning certainly showed that in Game 5. They were beaten 5-1 at home in Game 4 and came to New York and had a dominant defensive performance.
“Both teams have had their moments,” said Brassard, who leads the Rangers with nine goals in the postseason. “You know, it’s been back and forth, and we’re facing a really good team. I think it’s some really good hockey to watch. You know, we’re not far from our goal, and we just have to begin one more game and play hard, but we’re just going to try to focus on our play.”
Rick Nash, who has quietly put up 14 points in the postseason with five goals and nine assists, is hoping the back-and-forth trend the teams have shown will end Friday, allowing the Rangers to get to the finals for the second straight year. They lost the Cup to the Kings in five games last year, three of the losses in overtime.
He also knows there is nothing like a Game 7.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “You obviously want to win the series in four, but when it comes down to a Game 7, I feel like these are things that you dream about, and you pretend you’re playing hockey on the ice by yourself or road hockey when you were a kid. It’s just one of those experiences that’s tough to put into words.”
No doubt it’s stressful.
“Reality is, the game is coming no matter what, and you might as well turn that stress into energy and controlled emotions,” Nash said. “So it’s a tough balance, for sure.”
Cooper said the feeling is the same in his locker room.
“When you get to this time of year, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing Detroit, Montreal, Rangers or whoever it is, these are unreal hockey teams, well deserving of being in the playoffs,” he said. “Any team can take anybody out on any night. But for us, knowing under the highest pressure situation, when your season can potentially end or you can go on and play for the Stanley Cup, our guys have responded.”
NOTES: Lightning C Tyler Johnson had assists on Nikita Kucherov’s two goals and has an NHL-high 20 points in the playoffs. ... Brassard, Nash and linemate J.T. Miller each had at least four points in Game 6, making them the first Rangers to have at least four points in a playoff game in which the Rangers faced elimination since Mark Messier (three goals, one assist) in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against New Jersey in 1994, the last time the Rangers won the Cup. That was Messier’s “guarantee” game.