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Bolts embracing challenge of tonight's Game 7 at Madison Square Garden

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The national media views the Tampa Bay Lightning as an underdog in tonight’s Eastern Conference Final Game 7 against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, mostly because of the Rangers home success in similar scenarios.

Much has been written about New York’s Game 7 prosperity. The Rangers are 7-0 all-time in Game 7s at Madison Square Garden and have won their last six Game 7s.

But the Lightning have Game 7 experience too, and that point shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Earlier in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Tampa Bay won a Game 7 versus Detroit 2-0 to close out the Red Wings in the First Round. Before that, the Lightning had to go on the road and beat Detroit at Joe Louis Arena in an elimination Game 6 and played “arguably our best game of the playoffs” according to head coach Jon Cooper in the 5-2 victory.

Game 6 versus Montreal wasn’t an elimination match, but it certainly felt like one considering the three-games-to-none lead the Lightning broke out to followed by two straight losses and the shifting momentum toward the Canadiens. The Lightning did not want to go back to Montreal having lost three in a row and approached that Game 6 as if it were a Game 7.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said the Lightning shouldn’t feel inexperienced coming into tonight’s game. His pre-game message to the team tonight will be simple: embrace the moment.

“We have a lot of experience in this room, which is great in moments like this,” he said. “A lot of fresh faces is good too. Sometimes you’re naïve to the situation, and I think guys are excited. I think there’s more excitement than nervous tension, which is a good thing. Once that puck drops, it’s another game, and I think we realize the magnitude of it and realize what we’ve done that’s made us successful in the past and we have to do that tonight. There’s no bigger stage, and I think guys are willing to embrace that.”

Tampa Bay also has a number of players who have fared well in Game 7s with other teams. Anton Stralman is 6-0 in Game 7s. Brian Boyle (5-0) and Matt Carle (4-0) are also undefeated.

Although the Lightning as a group are young, there’s still enough veteran leadership in the room where moments like Friday night shouldn’t be overwhelming.

“We’ve gone through a lot, even in this playoff season, I think we’ve grown up a lot as a team,” Boyle said. “We’ve seen different things. We’ve had disappointments where we’ve learned from them. We’ve had some big games where we’ve come through and grown as a team as well. So, throughout the lineup, we’re all experienced now in the playoffs, and that’s a good thing. We’ll see though, I mean, it’s an experienced team over there, a good team, and it’s going to be exciting. We’re real excited for it.”

A lot of Lightning players have said in the days leading up to tonight’s Game 7 that they’ll approach it just like any other game.

But not Cooper.

“I don’t want to hide behind the clichés of it’s just another game,” he said. “This is an unreal game to be a part of. You sit back and think, guys don’t dream of scoring the winning goal in Game 1. They dream of scoring the winning goal in Game 7, and this is Game 7. We’re excited about this game.”

BEATING HANK

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has won each of the last six Game 7s he’s played, posting a 0.81 goals-against average and .973 save percentage. His 0.97 GAA in seven career Game 7s is an NHL record. The Swede is 10-0 in the last 10 games the Rangers have faced elimination at MSG.

With those stats in mind, it will be critically important for the Lightning to get to Lundqvist early to try and get him off his game.

“He’s a great goaltender. He’s never played the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Game 7 before, so that’s how we’re approaching it,” Stamkos said. “…We’re focusing on ourselves. We’re focusing on the way that we’ve played in the wins that we’ve had in this series and in this building and if we can stick to that, no matter what happens, the first five minutes, 10 minutes, whatever, we stick to that structure and that’s going to give ourselves the best chance to be successful.”

Boyle said the keys to beating Lundqvist are the same keys to beating any goalie in any situation.

“Keep him in his net, keep him from seeing the puck, get traffic and law of averages, quantity, a lot of shots, a lot of puck possession,” Boyle said. “We’ll see how it plays out.”

Cooper expects tonight’s game to be low-scoring, not only because of the great goaltenders in net for both teams – Lundqvist for the Rangers, Ben Bishop for the Bolts -- but because of the magnitude of the situation.

“My feeling is when you get down to these late games where everything’s on the line…both teams seem to play not to screw something up, and they wait for the other team to make a mistake,” Cooper said.

SUCCESS AT MSG

The Lightning are 5-1 against New York at Madison Square Garden this season, including a 2-1 record in three previous games of the Eastern Conference Final.

Overall, the Lightning are 6-3 on the road in the 2015 Playoffs.

“It’s a result from us playing the right way,” Stamkos said. “For whatever reason, we’ve kind of gone stray from that at home, and hopefully that’s something we can build off, some confidence. We realize how good (the Rangers have) been all season long. We realize how good they’ve been in these situations before. We’ve heard all that, but we have a little quiet confidence about our ability to play and to play in this building. Hopefully we can have some success tonight.”

The Lightning have also been strong in games following a loss, going 5-1 in those situations. The only time the Bolts were defeated in consecutive games during this postseason came when they lost two straight to Montreal after jumping out to a three-games-to-none lead in the Second Round series.

The Lightning are coming off a 7-3 loss in Game 6 on Tuesday.

“We’ve responded well,” Stamkos said. “We’ve had some poor games in this playoffs, and we’ve come out and played extremely well. We’ve found a way to bounce back, and that’s a great quality to have. You need it the most now in this game, so we’re looking to continue that trend.”

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