This was, simply put, the Lightning’s best defensive game of the year. And it came in their biggest game of the year. So far, anyway.
Jon Cooper’s message to the team over the past two days was this: if the team focuses on playing good defense, they’re talented enough to still generate scoring chances. Part of what ailed the Lightning in the third period of Game Six is that, in their attempt to reduce a deficit by chasing offensive looks, they lost their defensive structure.
In various press conferences on Thursday and Friday, both Cooper and Lightning players talked about the importance of sticking with their structure, no matter the score.
As it turned out, Cooper was right. In Game Seven, the Lightning produced a defensive gem. They limited the Rangers to only a handful of good looks on Ben Bishop and were able to generate a healthy number of scoring chances themselves.
It was clear from the onset that this was going to be a tight checking, hard-fought game. There was little room for either side to make plays and both teams played a committed defensive game. With only a few minutes left in the first period, shots were only 4-4. The Lightning had a late flurry of attempts and ended up with a 9-5 shot advantage. But the best two scoring chances belonged to the Lightning. Steven Stamkos deflected a shot that was heading into the top part of the net, but Henrik Lundqvist got a piece of the puck with his glove. The puck fluttered just over the crossbar. Later, Valtteri Filppula redirected a point shot and Lundqvist fought it off with his pad.
The Rangers received the only two power play chances in the game and they both occurred early in the second period. But the Lightning killed off both, holding the Rangers to just two shots. One of those, from Ryan McDonagh at the right circle, was a good chance, but Bishop stopped it with his left shoulder.
In the second half of the period, the Lightning enjoyed some offensive zone time and accumulated more chances. Lundqvist made terrific saves on Nikita Kucherov from the slot, Jason Garrison on an open look from the left circle and Tyler Johnson from the slot.
Early in the third, the Lightning finally got a puck past Lundqvist. Alex Killorn took the puck from the left circle to the slot and slid a backhand shot through Lundqvist’s pads. The all-important first goal came at the 1:54 mark. The Bolts continued to defend well after they got the lead even as the Rangers pressed the attack. There weren’t many breakdowns, but when the Rangers had some looks, Bishop made the saves. Those included a chance in the high slot for Dan Girardi and two opportunities for Derick Brassard.
Eventually the Triplets teamed up to contribute a second goal. Ondrej Palat made a pass from his own end to Johnson. Johnson had to accelerate to get to the puck before a Ranger could hold it in. Once he had the puck, Johnson continued to fly up ice on the right wing. Kucherov drove in the middle of the ice and took two Ranger defenders with him. That left Palat open on the left wing. Johnson fed him the puck and Palat finished his open look over Lundqvist’s glove. It was 2-0 with 8:43 remaining.
The Lightning managed those final minutes well, even after the Rangers pulled Lundqvist with just under four minutes left. While the Bolts struggled most of the night on faceoffs, they were able to win several key d-zone draws late in the third. Those faceoff wins helped them clear pucks safely out of their own end.
In so many ways, the Lightning played well defensively. They stayed on the right side of pucks, so the Rangers didn’t get any odd-man rushes. They boxed out well in front of Bishop, so the Rangers didn’t get many second chance opportunities. They worked hard to win puck battles, especially in their own zone and avoided extended d-zone shifts. They stayed away from neutral zone turnovers, instead getting pucks in deep to the Rangers end whenever they had a chance. They blocked 20 Ranger shots. And even though the Rangers also worked hard to defend well throughout the game, the Lightning still forced Lundqvist to make several spectacular saves. Not only did he made those five aforementioned stops in the first two periods, he also denied a point blank chance for Cedric Paquette in the third period. Lundqvist did everything he could to help his team win, but fortunately for the Lightning, they were able to get two pucks past him.
Bishop now has three shutouts in this playoff year, including one in each of the Lightning’s Game Seven wins. He watched his team play very well in front of him, obviously, but he also stood tall in stopping all 22 shots he faced.
On this night, the Lightning were the better team. They were the better team because of how committed they were to playing a sound, defensive team game. As a result, they became the first team to ever beat the New York Rangers in a Game Seven played at Madison Square Garden. And the performance put them into the Stanley Cup Final!
Before the Final begins, I’ll have a recap of this entire series. Look for it early next week.
Lightning Radio Big Moment of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game (as selected by Phil Esposito):
1.Ben Bishop – Lightning. 22-save shutout.
2.Alex Killorn – Lightning. GWG.
3.Henrik Lundqvist – Rangers. 23 saves