In Friday’s elimination Game 7 with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line, the Lightning were at their best. They played spirited defense as a group, choking the life from the New York Rangers’ attack. They capitalized on the few opportunities the Rangers gave them offensively. And Ben Bishop continues to prove that in the biggest moments, he’s the man for the occasion.
The Lightning will play for their second Stanley Cup starting Wednesday, June 3. But before the final playoff series commences, let’s take a look at how the Lightning were able to emerge from Friday’s Game 7 as Eastern Conference champions.
Tampa Bay came about as close as you can to playing a perfect hockey game in Game 7.
The Lightning followed their game plan precisely. Before Game 7, head coach Jon Cooper said the Bolts needed to focus on their net before worrying about scoring on the opposition’s. The Lightning couldn’t afford to give up the number of scoring chances they did in Games 3, 4 and 6.
Conversely, their own offensive attacks would be less frequent, but they would come.
And when they did, the Lightning would have to make the most of them..
“I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a perfect game, but that was close, especially the magnitude of it, the venue we were in, to go out there and pretty much execute the game plan to a T,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “The penalty kill was great. We didn’t give them much, and when we did, Bish was there.”
Ben Bishop made all 22 saves to earn another Game 7 shutout.
Nearly all of them were routine, though, as Bishop wasn’t asked to make the difficult save.
The Lightning kept traffic away from the front of Bishop’s net, preventing rebounds and deflections. The Bolts blocked 20 shots, the second time in the Eastern Conference Final they blocked 20 or more (24 in Game 5), both times resulting in victory.
The Bolts stayed out of the penalty box for the most part, and on the two infractions they were hit with, they gave up just two shots combined in four minutes on the penalty kill.
“They’re such a fun team to coach because they play the game in a multitude of ways,” Cooper said. “If you want to shoot it out, as our guys like to do, we can shoot it out. If you want to go to the Stanley Cup Final, you have to play D. If you really want to do it, it’s a choice. I look at the two games we played (at Madison Square Garden) in Game 5 and Game 7, and, as a coach, I don’t think we could have drawn it up any better. And they made a choice. You want to go to the final or not? And you see what happened.”
2. BREAKING TRENDS
The challenge facing the Lightning in Game 7 was too daunting to overcome the experts agreed beforehand.
The Rangers had never lost a Game 7 at MSG, going a perfect 7-0. New York had won its last six Game 7s, tying a NHL record for consecutive Game 7 victories.
The Rangers had the maturity and the familiarity to deal with the situation.
The Lightning were just too inexperienced to win under those circumstances everybody said.
Everybody was wrong.
“We just kind of got that groove,” Cooper said. “I don’t know if we’re so young and dumb and don’t know any better. When you walk into that room and have watched this team get pushed against the wall, and you watch this team give up five and five and seven the other night, but they just answer the challenge. Every time we as a staff go in and challenge them, they respond.”
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist provided another obstacle. Lundqvist posted a 0.97 goals-against average in his seven previous Game 7 appearances, an NHL record. His six career Game 7 victories were tied with Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy for most in league history. He was 10-0 in the Rangers’ last 10 elimination games.
On Friday, he was outplayed by the goalie manning the opposite net.
“We all knew (Lundqvist’s) record,” Bishop said. “You saw it all over the TV and there weren’t many people picking us. It’s nice. It kind of gives you a little bit more, you don’t need much in these games, but you want to break that record.”
Tampa Bay’s regular season success against Lundqvist carried over into the postseason. The Lightning won all three regular season meetings with Lundqvist, scoring 14 goals against him in the process.
“We had success against (Montreal’s Carey) Price in the regular season and we had success against Lundqvist, and it was never a doubt in our guys’ minds that we could score on these goalies,” Cooper said. “…Those are two of the greatest goalies, in my opinion, in our era that have ever played this game. But our guys have this attitude that we’ve did it before, why can’t we do it now. We just felt all we need was a couple chances, and we’re going to score.”
3. CELLY RESTRAINT
To be sure, the Tampa Bay Lightning were quite jubilant in their MSG locker room following Game 7.
T-shirts and hats proclaiming the Bolts Eastern Conference champions were passed around. Former Rangers turned Lightning assistant captains Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan hugged. Players and staff posed for a team picture inside the room before the media was ushered in.
But the Lightning understand there’s more work left to be done.
“We still haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Bishop said. “We’re four wins away. It’s going to be probably the hardest four wins of all of our careers. We know there’s a lot ahead of us…We’ll just try to get a little bit of rest here in the next couple of days and be ready whoever we play.”
Stamkos was part of the Lightning’s 2011 Eastern Conference finalist team that finished one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. At the time, Stamkos, in his third season in the league, figured he’d have plenty of opportunities to reach the Cup final.
Now, after taking four seasons to get back to the ECF, Stamkos realizes these opportunities don’t come around too often. The key is to make the most of them.
“This is our chance, and obviously I want to get it done,” Stamkos said.
The rest of the Lightning have adopted the mantra of their captain.
“We still have more work to do,” Tyler Johnson said. “We’re happy to be here, but now it’s just get back to work.”