Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist reported to Amalie Arena ready to play from the moment the puck dropped on Game 6. Most of his teammates, true to form for New Yorkers, showed up about 40 minutes late. But, in the spirit of better late than never, the Rangers did exactly enough to force a final showdown against Tampa Bay, to bring this series to a do-or-die Game 7.
Thanks to a five-goal explosion in the third period, New York will now play at Madison Square Garden for the chance to return to the Stanley Cup finals. The Rangers have been virtually unbeatable in elimination games on home ice since 2008. The Lightning, meanwhile, will have two days to either ponder or forget a stretch of 7:14 in the third when they were outshot 8-1 and their goalie Ben Bishop gave up three goals to extend what seemed like a tenuous 2–1 Rangers lead at the time. In the end, when center Derick Brassard scored on the empty net to cap off his first career hat trick, New York took command of the game, pulling out the 7–3 win on Tuesday night.
“We wanted a chance, and we got a chance,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault told the media after Game 6. “We talked in between the second and third about not sitting back and making more plays with the puck.”
The stretch during the third period was the best New York has played all postseason long, a reminder of the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy with 113 points this season. Taking advantage of some careless Lightning turnovers, the Rangers ultimately chased Bishop out of his net. The solid defensive structure the Bolts had shown off in Game 5 seemed like a distant memory.
“We gave up more scoring chances and turned over more pucks [in that third-period stretch] than we did in all of Game 5 combined,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper lamented during his postgame press conference.
The Lightning were doomed by their start of the third period. The Rangers, however, would have been doomed much earlier if not for the sublime play of their netminder. Without Lundqvist, they likely would have watched their season end. His mastery in these situations—he has won 15 of his last 18 games when facing elimination—can often change the equation completely. With 28 saves in the first 40 minutes, a dozen of which would be categorized as excellent, Lundqvist gave his team the opportunity to repay their debt to him.
After all, he had built up a sizable amount of credit in those two periods. There was Lundqvist’s early save on Lightning winger Ryan Callahan from the slot, getting the butt-end of his stick on the shot. Or the toe-save on Steven Stamkos, who was waiting on the doorstep during a Tampa Bay power play. Early in the second, Lundqvist made a pair of stops, diving laterally to deny a rebound chance by Tyler Johnson. The King kept the puck out when J.T. Brown barreled into his crease with it, and when Brian Boyle snapped a one-timer from close range. He didn’t get caught mesmerized as Johnson toe-dragged through a defender and got a shot up high. No, the only goal that Lundqvist allowed while the game was still close was a Callahan breakaway late in the first period, a play sprung by a brilliant 80-foot stretch pass by Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman.
By the midpoint of the game, the Lightning had outshot the Rangers by nearly two-to-one and Lundqvist looked to be the primary reason why New York held the lead. The secondary reason was Brassard, who opened the game with a goal at 3:36 and then earned the primary assist on a score by defenseman Keith Yandle 12 minutes later. With a career-high five points, the first-line center now leads the Rangers with nine goals and 16 points. An offensive spark going into Game 7 would be welcome for New York—and especially for Lundqvist.
For Tampa Bay, a young group realized just how quickly a game can change, how only a few moments of panic can alter the course of events dramatically. “They’ve played some unreal hockey to get us this far,” Cooper said. “[But] we showed if we’re not going to play the proper way, a really good hockey team is going to beat [us], and that’s what they did. It’s a lesson learned.”