GREENBURGH, N.Y. — It’s one game for a trip to the Stanley Cup finals and the chance to play for hockey’s biggest prize.
That’s what Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers face May 30 at Madison Square Garden in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Picking a winner at this point is pure speculation. Every game has been different and each team has its advantages.
The Lightning have the ‘Triplets’ line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, a hot captain in Steven Stamkos, an outstanding defenseman in Victor Hedman and goaltender Ben Bishop, who has stepped whenever the season has been on the line.
The Presidents’ Trophy winning Rangers had the NHL’s best regular-season record, a 42-goal scorer in Rick Nash, a shutdown defensive duo of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi and the experience of having been to the finals just a year ago.
The difference maker also belongs to the Rangers: goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. No one is better in Game 7s than the Swede.
Lundqvist has won his last six Game 7s, posting a 0.81 goals against average, a .973 save percentage and one shutout. The six consecutive Game 7 wins are an NHL record and his Game 7 wins are tied with Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy for the most in NHL history.
“I don’t know if I’m comfortable,” Lundqvist said after practice May 28 at the Rangers’ Westchester facility. ” I just try to go out and do my job. You’re definitely nervous, but it comes down to teamwork. I feel comfortable when we’re in the right place, when we’re doing good things out there. I feel like it’s easier for me to focus on my game, and that’s a big part of winning these games, too. You focus on the team concept and the things that brought you to this moment.”
Lundqvist was special in the Rangers’ 7-3 win in Game 6 on May 26, stopping 36 shots in helping the Rangers win for the 15th time in the last 18 playoff games that they faced elimination.
“He is our best player,” defenseman Marc Staal said. “When you are in situations like this, you know he is going to be there competing and throwing his best game on the ice.”
New York did get a scare in the workout when forward J.T. Miller ripped a shot in a one-on-one drill with Lundqvist that caught the goaltender either on the shoulder or the mask.
Lundqvist immediately bent over, drawing concern that he had been hit again in the neck. He missed seven weeks and 25 games with a vascular injury after being hit by shot.
Miller quickly apologized and Lundqvist later said he was not hurt. “Obviously you don’t want to hit him in the head with the shot,” Miller said.
Bishop comes into the game somewhat as a question mark. He has given up 15 goals in the three games in Tampa, Fla. However, he posted a 2-0 shutout in the last game at the Garden on May 24.
“Just another game. You don’t change anything,” Bishop said before the Lightning left for New York. “You prepare the same way. You do the same things you’ve been doing all year since training camp. Obviously it has a little more meaning to it, but you can’t look at it like that.”
The Lightning have won two of the three games in New York, and Bishop has given up just four goals in the three games there.
“It comes down to one game,” said Tampa Bay forward Ryan Callahan, a former Rangers captain. “It’s for the conference finals, it doesn’t get much more exciting than this. It’s an opportunity for us to go in there and advance to the finals. We’re excited about it and we’re excited about the chances.”
This has been a series where capitalizing on an opponent’s mistakes has been the difference. Lundqvist helped the Rangers win the last two games in Florida by playing well early and allowing the team to settle into the games.
Now it’s the Lightning who need a big effort.
“I think history is a little bit irrelevant. It’s all different,” said Johnson, who has scored 12 goals in the postseason and has seen his line combine for 27. “You’re not playing against the same teams. You’re not playing the same situations. We’ve had some success there this series. Hopefully we continue to do so. Focus on what we need to do.”
It should be a night for both teams to remember.
“Obviously you want to play in these games,” Rangers center Dominic Moore said. “Obviously they are stressful, but you would not want to go through a hockey career and not ever have played in a game like this, so I think you have to embrace it at the same time.”
(TOM CANAVAN, AP Sports Writer)