The outcome of the see-saw Lightning-Rangers Eastern finals series is hard to predict, but Henrik Lundqvist is likely the key to Game 7.
Wondering about what to expect from the finale of this thoroughly entertaining Eastern Conference finals series on Friday night?
It could be the most thrilling game yet.
Or it could be a blowout.
After six games that have run the stylistic gamut from tepid defensive-minded showdowns to high-scoring track meets there’s no way to predict how this series will resolve itself.
Then again, maybe we shouldn’t try.
“It's like the first six games of this series, when you really think about it, do they really mean anything?” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said to reporters on Thursday. “They really don’t. It's just come down to a one-game series. Game 7 is the only one that matters.
“It’s just going to be one of those games where let’s strap ’em up and play ’em, let’s see who comes out on top.”
All we know for sure is that it’s set for Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA), a venue that Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman respectfully described as “a hostile environment.” But he’s happy to be there just the same.
“If anyone would have said before this season that we would have a Game 7 in the Conference finals to make it to the Stanley Cup final, we would have taken it,” Hedman said. “So we're looking forward to the game on Friday.”
“I feel like these are things that you dream about and you pretend [when] you’re playing hockey on the ice by yourself or road hockey when you were a kid,” Nash said. “It’s just one of those experiences that’s tough to put into words.”
It’s tough to put into numbers too. There are plenty of ’em to be had, but with so many of them at odds with others there are no clear signs of what’s ahead.
You’ve heard that the Rangers are 7-0 in Game 7s at home? Well the Lightning are 4-1 at the Garden this season, taking two of three in New York during this series.
Yes, New York’s offense is coming off a seven-goal outburst in Game 6, but it managed a total of four goals in the three previous contests at MSG.
The Lightning’s improved forward depth was supposed to be a difference maker, but each of the 19 goals they’ve scored this series has come from their top-six forwards.
Maybe if there are any numbers worth putting stock in, they belong to the netminders. And if you do, then New York seems to have a distinct advantage.
The Rangers have gone 15-3 in elimination games during the past four seasons. Win or lose, Henrik Lundqvist has been fantastic, posting a 1.47 goals-against average and .954 save percentage.
This being his first run through the playoffs, Ben Bishop can’t match that resume—few could—but he has shown a knack for stepping up when it matters most. He delivered a shutout in Game 7 to lead Tampa Bay to its first-round win over the Red Wings. He outdueled Carey Price and closed the door on Montreal’s season in Game 6 of their second-round series.
But he’s also allowed five goals in three of his past four appearances. That’s 15 goals on the last 104 shots he’s faced. An .856 save percentage.
At any other time of the year he’d be parked on the bench until he got his head screwed on straight. But for this one, the biggest game the Lightning have played since a similar Game 7 against the Boston Bruins in 2011, he’s the man.
Despite those nightmarish stats, despite the fact that Bishop has never been in this situation, his coach doesn’t sound like he’s losing any sleep to worry.
“The one thing about [Bishop] is he is a mentally tough kid,” Cooper “When he's challenged, he has responded.”
Maybe he will respond again. Bishop, who set a franchise record for wins this season, has been Tampa’s best and most consistent player during the past two seasons. His ability to put the occasional bad loss behind him has been the key to his success.
But now those bad losses are stacking up. And Lundqvist’s track record suggests that Bishop won’t have a lot of wiggle room to work with in this one. Forget five goals. If he allows two Tampa Bay’s season could very well be finished on Friday night.
“I think he'll be fine,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said, apparently willing to throw the numbers out the window.
It’s Game 7. Maybe we all should.