Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers could be the most important match some of the players on the Tampa Bay Lightning will ever play in their NHL career.
But, they’re not treating it as such.
To them, Friday will be just another day and Game 7 will be just another game, at least that’s the way they feel they have to approach it in order to keep the situation from becoming too overwhelming.
“You can’t really focus too much on it, can’t stress about it because when you do that, that’s when bad things happen,” said Lightning center Tyler Johnson, who will be playing in his second Game 7, both coming during these playoffs. “You just kind of have to relax, be able to play. I think that’s a lesson that we learned throughout this postseason and just playing our game.”
How hard is it to maintain that even keel with so much riding on one game?
“It’s difficult I guess just because it is such a big game, but at the same time we’ve done this our entire careers, whether it be in juniors or American League or even the professional league,” Johnson responded. “We’ve played in big games before. You just kind of get used to it in a way. Obviously we’ve worked extremely hard to get to this point, and we don’t want it to end. We want to keep going.”
The Lightning have been in one Game 7 already this postseason, having defeated Detroit 2-0 at home to close out the First Round series.
But there’s nothing quite like playing a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Final with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line.
“You can’t be nervous,” Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. “There will be nerves but you get that first shift out of the way, first hit, first shot, that goes along the wayside and it’s another game. It’s going to be fun. It’s conference finals in Game 7 at MSG. It’s going to be an exciting time.”
New York is 7-0 all-time in Game 7s at Madison Square Garden, a stat certainly worthy of respect Lightning players say but not one to fret over.
What the Rangers have done in the past has no bearing on Friday’s outcome.
“The past and the records and everything are great, but they’re kind of irrelevant in a way,” Johnson said. “It’s a game. It’s 60 minutes, whatever team wants to win it more. The start of the game starts 0-0. It doesn’t really matter what they did in the past. It doesn’t matter what we did in the past. It’s game on when the puck drops.”
Stralman, who played with the Rangers in a pair of Game 7s during their run to the Stanley Cup Final last season, said New York’s experience in these high-pressure situations is what has given them an edge previously.
“They have a group that’s been together, the core I guess, for a long time,” Stralman said. “And that’s about it, I think. You get guys to play together for a long time, and character guys that they are, it seems like they always step up at the right moment and everybody’s on their game when they need it the most. “
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, in particular, has raised his game, winning each of the last six Game 7s he has played in while posting a 0.81 goals-against average and .973 save percentage.
“He’s very competitive, I think that’s first and foremost,” Stralman said. “I never played with another player that’s more competitive than him. It seems like when the pressure’s on and the stakes are high, he seems to find his best games. I guess he excels with that weight on his shoulder.”
The Lightning have their own impressive streak going, having won two out of three games in the ECF at Madison Square Garden and five of their last six there overall.
Still, you can throw out all those past records and successes come puck drop Friday night.
“I’m not going to fly up from Florida if I bought (into the Rangers’ home Game 7 mystique),” Lightning center Brian Boyle said. “They’ve obviously had success in Game 7. This is a new year. We’re expecting their best. It’s a fun place to play. They’re going to have their crowd support. We’re going to try to take it away from them as quick as we can. Hopefully it’s going to be a fun, memorable game.”
THE OPENING GOAL
Scoring first is always magnified in a Game 7 because of the importance of the game and typically low-scoring nature of the contest.
For the Lightning, however, the first goal takes on added importance. The Bolts are 8-0 this postseason when scoring first.
“It’s always nice to get the first goal,” Johnson said. “It kind of helps your structure, kind of helps the way you can play. At the same time, you can’t overemphasize it. If it doesn’t go your way, it doesn’t go your way. You have to play a full 60 minutes and even if you get the first goal, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll win. It’s one of those things that you definitely want to get, but I think the main objective is to be able to compete and play hard for 60 minutes and let the chips fall where they may.”
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said grabbing an early lead also allows the Bolts to play more of their style of game rather than getting pulled out of their comfort zone trying to chase the game.
“Ultimately it really doesn’t matter who scores first,” Cooper said. “It matters who’s got the most at the end. You just stick with your structure for the 60 and see where the chips fall.”