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Lightning grow taller each series in run to Cup Final

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

NEW YORK -- Watching the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final was like watching the little brother in a reality TV series grow bigger by the game before hitting the growth spurt that sent him towering over big brother like Victor Hedman over Tyler Johnson.

The Lightning are going to the Stanley Cup Final because in the end they discovered the best way to beat big brother is to ignore his reputation, age, strength and experience, and simply just stuff your best game down his throat with confidence and bravado befitting a champion finding his way.

That's what the Lightning did Friday to win 2-0 in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. They played as close to a perfect road hockey game as possible.

"You shine the light bright on our guys, and they'll just put on sunglasses and walk right through it," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It's unreal how they respond."

The Lightning responded every single time the Rangers pushed them in this series.

They barely showed up in Game 1 and lost 2-1; they won 6-2 in Game 2. They had the Rangers on the ropes only to let them back in it in Game 3, but then found a way to win 6-5 in overtime.

Game 4 was a 5-1 blowout win for the Rangers; Game 5 was a shut-down 2-0 win by the Lightning.

Game 6, another blowout for New York, this time by a 7-3 score.

Game 7 at the Garden was supposed to be all Rangers because the numbers and history and home-ice advantage said so.

The Rangers were the team that was 7-0 all time in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. They were the team that had won six straight Game 7s. They had the goalie with a 0.97 goals-against average in his seven career Game 7s.

The Lightning, on the other hand, were the team that just got lit up, that appeared to blow its great opportunity.

"It's been our ability to respond to the downs that I think has really pushed this team over the top," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "We've played some great games and followed them up with some iffy ones, but we come out and we know what we have to do. Tonight was a perfect example of that."

The Lightning gave the Rangers almost nothing through two periods -- "by our counts we gave them two or three Grade A scoring chances," Stamkos said -- and watched Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist make sparkling save after sparking save, the way he always has in Game 7.

The score was still 0-0 because of Tampa Bay's stifling defense and Lundqvist. But there was no bend in the Lightning.

"We talked about it in the (second) intermission, we knew we were going to get one," Stamkos said. "There was that calming presence. It wasn't going to be pretty. And it wasn't pretty. We found a way. The top two lines got a goal, and everyone played their role to a T."

Lightning left wing Alex Killorn slithered a backhand shot through what appeared to be the tiniest hole between Lundqvist's pads and below his stick at 1:54. It was the first imperfect moment of the game by Lundqvist, and it was all the Lightning needed.

The Rangers pushed, finally making Lightning goalie Ben Bishop make a hard save. He did against Derick Brassard at 9:21, when the Rangers were finally creating some chaos in Tampa Bay's zone.

Less than two minutes later, it was lights out. Tampa Bay left wing Ondrej Palat, he of the now-famous "Triplets" line, scored off a 3-on-2 rush to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead at 11:17.

The Rangers got three more shots on goal, including one from Chris Kreider that came as the Lightning players were starting to pour their legs over the boards to begin their celebration.

Bishop made 22 workmanlike saves, very much like he made 26 saves in Tampa Bay's 2-0 win in Game 5 at the Garden. It's a wonder he even broke a sweat.

"This whole series has been somewhat of a roller coaster, both teams giving up a lot of goals, scoring a lot of goals, and then we have two shutouts in huge games," said Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, who played for the Rangers from 2011-14. "I guess it's just the way we step up in these big games and just really lay it all out there and play so well defensively. It shows a lot of growth. Like I said in the beginning of this playoff, we're a growing team, we're not at our best yet. We're getting challenged, and that's how we're going to grow in the playoffs."

The Lightning's growth showed in the conference final, but they started showing spurts long beforehand. Go back to last season, when Stamkos broke his leg on the right post at TD Garden in Boston. He missed 45 games; Tampa Bay went 22-18-5 without him and finished with 101 points.

One day before Stamkos returned, captain and longtime face of the franchise Martin St. Louis was traded to the Rangers. Then the Lightning got swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.

They never lost their way. If anything, they found the light.

"We learned," Stamkos said. "We learned what it takes to win. We learned how quick it can be over. No one wanted that this year.

"We wanted this so bad."

So did general manager Steve Yzerman. Why else would he have signed Stralman and center Brian Boyle in the offseason? Why else would he have traded a first-round pick for defenseman Braydon Coburn at the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline?

Stralman entered the playoffs with a 5-0 record in Game 7, and Boyle was 4-0. They each played in the Stanley Cup Final last year with the Rangers. Coburn was 3-1. He played in the Cup Final with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010.

So much was made about the Rangers' record in Game 7 that the Lightning's experience in these games was forgotten about or ignored. It shouldn't have been. It mattered. It showed Friday night.

Their players are now 61-9 in Game 7s.

"When you've got that in your dressing room, it wasn't Jon Cooper making a pregame speech to our players; it was our players making a speech to our players," Cooper said. "That was tonight.

"The young guys and the guys that haven't been there before, they believed. And listening to guys that have been there before, there are no better people to listen to."

There's more to come for these Lightning, more growing to do. They're not done. Oh no, they're not even close to being done. But they are taller today than they were yesterday just as they were taller yesterday than they were in the second round against Montreal.

Four more wins, and they'll be giants.

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