NEW YORK — To be expected in the tense circumstances of an all-or-nothing game, space was tight out on the ice at Madison Square Garden, even tighter in and around Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s crease. But early in the third period of a scoreless Game 7, somehow the puck squeezed through the pads of New York’s heralded King. Tampa Bay winger Alex Killorn, taking it up the left wing with speed, made a hard stop at the half-wall to gain separation from his defender and curled through the left circle. His Lightning linemates Steven Stamkos and Valtteri Filppula served as screens in front of the Rangers net when Killorn backhanded the puck into traffic. There were plenty of obstacles on the way to the net—skates, sticks, Lundqvist’s paddle, his pad—and yet, the puck found just a sliver of space, exactly enough to be the difference Friday night.
On the backs of team defense, the league’s most fearsome offense shut New York down, defeating the Rangers, 2-0, and advancing to the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in team history. The win, Tampa Bay’s fifth in six games in Madison Square Garden this season, defied the pile of statistical history that made the Rangers seem unbeatable before a second had been played. Coming into the decisive matchup, New York won each of its last six Game 7s and held a 7-0 record in these games at home. In the last 10 elimination games in front of their fans, the Rangers had been perfect. Their goalie’s numbers in those do-or-die situations were unbelievable: 0.96 GAA, a .968 save percentage and two shutouts. But even he could not give enough, as the Lightning held New York to 22 shots and just 11 in the first 40 minutes.
“After the second period, we figured we gave [New York] two or three Grade A scoring chances,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “One game [earlier in the series], we gave them 20. When we commit to defense, we know that offense is going to come. It wasn’t pretty but we found a way.”
The pretty goal game 10 minutes later, when center Tyler Johnson fed Ondrej Palat on an odd-man rush with speed. Palat, who had scored three goals in the first two rounds of the postseason, sniped a shot over Lundqvist’s glove—his fourth in seven games. In this series that seemed to have a touch of it all, whether frantic scoring or tight checking, the Lightning turned into the road team that hadn’t really been during the regular season.
“[We] can play the game in a multitude of ways,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “You want to shoot it out, which our guys like to do, we can shoot it out. We want to win… then you have to play defense.”
Like they did in Game 5, the Lightning played another an impeccable road game, limiting the Rangers quality chances and lending goalie Ben Bishop support at every turn. “Attention to detail is huge when playing in a tight game like this,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. “We were really careful with our defense tonight. We made sure the puck went 200 feet and got on the forecheck when needed. When we were in our own zone, we made sure the puck got out. We just played smart, made good decisions. We were always on the right side of the puck.”
Said Stamkos: “Sometimes it gets lost because we have the ability to score goals and we get away from our structure sometimes, but when it really comes down to it, in the games we needed to win the most, we had a shutout against Detroit, one against Montreal and we get a shutout in Game 5 and 7 here.”
Focusing on their defense, they only had to trust the offense would come. After two periods of watching Lundqvist make awe-inspiring saves—two impressive saves on deflected shots in the first, a stop on a backdoor chance by defenseman Jason Garrison, a right pad save on Johnson from point-blank range—it would have been easy for Tampa Bay not to trust. It would have been understandable if they fell into frustration; many teams (the Penguins), many stars (Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin) have been there in the past. But not these Lightning. As represented by some of Stamkos’s comments before the game, they don’t measure themselves against other people’s pasts—only their own. “[Lundqvist] is a great goaltender,” he said. “[But] he’s never played the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 before.”
“This comes from the regular season,” Cooper explained after the game. “We had success against Lundqvist [in the regular season], and there was never a doubt in our guys’ minds that we could score on [him], and I think that helped us in the playoffs.”
It didn’t hurt either that Tampa Bay, too, had its share of veteran success on its roster. As much was made of the statistical favor of New York, Cooper was quick to point out the Lightning have three players who were undefeated in Game 7 situations. Matt Carle, Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle have never lost a do-or-die game. The irony, perhaps, is that the success Stralman and Boyle brought to the game mostly came with the team they had just defeated.
Ultimately, the Rangers’ inability to generate goals, particularly at home in this series, spelled their demise. The last time they scored in Madison Square Garden was in the second period of Game 2. The Lightning trusted their offense would come, and it came. In New York, the Rangers’ just never really did.