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Three keys for Rangers, Lightning to winning Game 7

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

NEW YORK -- While he sees it as a great event and agrees that there is nothing quite like it in sports, New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault believes the best way to approach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports) is to not overdramatize it or give it any preferential treatment.

"This is just one of many games," Vigneault said.

Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper respectfully disagrees.

"I don't think it's just another game," Cooper said. "This is Game 7. You win this game and you're going to go play for the Stanley Cup. So I'm not going to sit here and hide this from our guys saying, 'Oh, fellas, this is one of 103 or 104 or whatever we're playing.'

"I don't want to hide behind the clichés of it's just another game. This is an unreal game to be a part of."

It would be an unreal feeling if they can win it. Vigneault, for as tempered as he is with his emotions, can't deny that.

Here are the keys to advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for each team:

LIGHTNING

1. Play like it's Game 5

The Lightning played an almost perfect game the last time they visited Madison Square Garden. It was Game 5 and they won 2-0 in what was a stifling, scintillating, shot-blocking, defensive performance.

Tampa Bay kept New York to the outside, away from the net, and cut off the shooting lanes better than it has at any point in the series. Tampa blocked 24 of New York's 58 shot attempts, including 10 of 22 in the third period as it locked down that 2-0 lead.

Goalie Ben Bishop was strong, his rebound control impeccable. The Rangers attacked but found no holes and no openings in the offensive zone.

Tampa Bay needs to play like that again. Anything else would be too risky.

"If you look at complete games, Game 5 was the most complete game we've played in this series," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said Friday. "We have to play like that again. There's not going to be any shortcuts."

They tried to find some shortcuts in Game 6 and got burned. The Rangers attacked, found space, zipped the puck around, cashed in on some rebounds and one-timers and won 7-3.

2. Win the middle

You'll see down below that this also is a key for the Rangers. Why is it a key for both? Simple: The team that has won the middle of the ice is the team that has won the game. The only game in which you could argue against that theory was Game 3, a 6-5 overtime win by the Lightning.

The Rangers won the middle in Game 1 and won 2-1. The Lightning found ample room through the middle in Game 2 and won 6-2. The Rangers did the same for the better parts of Game 4 and Game 6, except for the majority the second period in each game, and won 5-1 and 7-3, respectively. The Lightning gave the Rangers nothing through the middle in Game 5 and won 2-0.

So yes, win the middle and win the game. It's pretty basic.

To do it, the Lightning feel they have to limit their turnovers so the Rangers, if they're going to attack them with speed, have to do it for 200 feet, not half the ice.

"The one thing I find is the games change for us when we turn it over," Cooper said. "I look back at these games where the Rangers have lit us up. It wasn't a situation where, oh, the Rangers did something unbelievable that we couldn't stop. We just fed their transition. Then when the scramble's on, their instincts take over and good players make great plays. I mean, that's what they do. But it was our inability to get through the neutral zone or turn pucks over or not get them deep that fed the Rangers.

"If we don't get through the neutral zone or we start turning the pucks over, it's going to be a long night."

3. Stay brash, be confident

The Lightning are a confident team. And it's not quiet confidence either. They are brash bordering on cocky, but in a good way, heading into Game 7 even though they know the numbers are stacked against them.

The Rangers are 7-0 all time in Game 7s at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers have won six consecutive Game 7s since 2012 and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has allowed five goals in those six games. Four of them have come at Madison Square Garden.

But Hedman and Lightning captain Steven Stamkos both brought up the idea that they don't care about all of that because the Lightning weren't a part of any of those games.

"He's a great goaltender," Stamkos said of Lundqvist. "But he's never played the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Game 7 before."

The Lightning clearly are taking their cues from Cooper, who it appears wants his players to use all of the numbers that favor the Rangers as motivation.

"Against us in [Game 7] they're 0-0," Cooper said. "I know a lot of it has been centered on the Rangers, but go through a few of our players and add up their Game 7 numbers. … You might be fairly impressed."

Defenseman Anton Stralman (6-0), forward Brian Boyle (5-0) and defenseman Matthew Carle (4-0) never have lost in a Game 7. Ryan Callahan is 4-1 in Game 7s. The Lightning, of course, won Game 7 against the Red Wings in the first round, so forwards Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette, defensemen Nikita Nesterov and Andrej Sustr, and Bishop are 1-0 in Game 7s.

Overall the Lightning's roster is 43-9 in Game 7s.

"Experience is obviously a thing that helps players," Stamkos said. "We have a lot of guys that have pretty good records in Game 7 as well. So we're focusing on ourselves."

RANGERS

1. Make experience matter

It's hard to say how experience comes into play once the game gets underway, but the Rangers plan to use it in whatever way they can.

The players expected to skate for the Rangers on Friday have combined to play in 86 Game 7s, with a collective record of 74-12.

Lundqvist and defenseman Dan Girardi have played in seven Game 7s with the Rangers since 2009; they are 6-1 in those games. Lundqvist, Girardi, captain Ryan McDonagh, left wing Carl Hagelin, and center Derek Stepan have been part of six straight Game 7 wins.

Right wing Martin St. Louis and center Dominic Moore are 6-1 in Game 7s. Defenseman Marc Staal is 5-1 in Game 7s, all with the Rangers. Left wing Chris Kreider is 5-0 in them, all with the Rangers. Rick Nash and Derick Brassard are 4-0 in Game 7s, all with the Rangers.

"Once the puck drops everyone is trying to achieve the same goal and we don't worry about them as much as we worry about us, our game plan, our process," Nash said. "It's pretty simple once the puck drops."

2. Win the middle

The last thing the Rangers want to do is fuel the Lightning's rush game. That's exactly what has happened when they've turned the puck over, or at the very least failed to get through the neutral with any type of speed.

So much in the same way the Lightning see the middle of the ice as the most important area in Game 7, the Rangers do as well.

"The neutral zone is a huge part of this," Nash said. "For a team like they are, with so much skill, right when you turn over the puck they have so much speed and they're going the other way. You can't be doing that against their skill. It's definitely an important factor for us to be good in the middle."

Hagelin said the middle of the ice has been so important in this series because both teams are fast and can transition quickly off of turnovers to create scoring chances off odd-man rushes. Neither team wants to slow down, but the one that plays cleaner in the middle of the ice likely will win.

"It's been like that every game," Hagelin said. "The times we've been able to slow them down or pick up passes in the middle we've been able to go the other way. A lot of the goals have been scored off the rush, not off cycles. Even though teams have spent time in the offensive zone, if you look at a lot of the goals it's either been [power play] goals or off the rush."

3. Re-discover their MSG mojo

The Rangers were a strong team at Madison Square Garden in the regular season, winning 25 of 41 games with a plus-28 goal-differential that was tied for fourth in the NHL. They averaged 3.0 goals per game at home.

New York was 5-2 with 12 goals-allowed at home through the first two rounds.

The Lightning have chipped away at the Rangers' home-ice advantage in this series.

New York has scored four goals in three games at MSG against Tampa Bay; it has 17 goals in three games at Amalie Arena, where the Lightning won 32 games and had a plus-51 goal differential in the regular season.

The Rangers won Game 1 with two goals, but they were not able to break the Lightning's structure in Game 2 (6-2 Tampa Bay win) or Game 5 (2-0 Tampa Bay win).

"The ice surfaces are the same dimensions so there shouldn't be any difference in terms of that kind of thing," Rangers center Dominic Moore said. "We just need to focus on playing the right way."

That way is defense-first for the Rangers, as it is for the Lightning on the road. Nash said he thinks the Rangers have been focused too much on trying to create their own scoring chances at home instead of being patient and allowing their strong defense transition into an offensive attack.

The Rangers have not had the same issues at Amalie Arena because they've played defensively sound, relied on Lundqvist to make some big saves and attacked off the rush.

They basically need to play their road game at home to win Game 7.

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