NEW YORK—Tampa Bay was better. The first period was scoreless, sure, and the Rangers started strong. The second period was scoreless, and the Rangers got power plays. The tension ratcheted up in jagged bursts, a spring being wound and snapping back. Someone was going to regret this, and you felt like a goal that comes against the run of play was coming.
It didn’t, though. The expected never came. Yes, Henrik Lundqvist had never lost when facing elimination at Madison Square Garden, and is a giant in Game 7s, and was the best goaltender left in these playoffs. Yes, the Rangers had been here, and the Tampa Bay Lightning had not.
But the Lightning weren’t scared. This is a young team but a confident one; they have solved Lundqvist before, and didn’t play like they were afraid of a mistake. Someone read off New York’s Game 7 work to Steven Stamkos at the morning skate, and as he walked into an adjoining room he said, “They’ve never played the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Game 7 before.”
Now they have. After the first five minutes Tampa controlled the pace, the space, everything but the scoreboard. It was their best game of the series. They just needed to score.
Well, a Game 7 is a peak, which means the sheer cliff face is never very far away for someone. Not two minutes into the third Tampa’s Alex Killorn skated along the boards, spun to the middle with a Ranger on his back, and golfed a backhand that bounced through a Valtteri Filppula screen and between Lundqvist’s legs. Finally, the combination to the safe. With 18:06 left it was 1-0 Lightning. They hadn’t lost a playoff game this year after scoring first.
The Rangers pushed back, of course, but never too hard. With 12 minutes left Lightning forward Cedric Paquette had a clean chance in front and Lundqvist stopped him, and you wondered if anyone would regret that. The Rangers had a flurry with 10:40 left, and Ben Bishop was there. Lotta time left. New York had more shots on goal in the third period than they did in the first two combined.
But watching this Tampa team grow up has been a revelation. With 8:43 left the Lightning broke out cleanly, and Tyler Johnson hit fellow triplet Ondrej Palat with a classic cross-ice pass, and he roofed past Lundqvist, clean and neat. The triplets — Nikita Kucherov is the third one — had been quieter when it mattered, and it was said that as a virus raced through the room they were affected.
Well, they sealed it. Tampa won 2-0, and will advance to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since winning it all in 2004. The Rangers had been great in Game 7s, it’s true. But the Lightning are the most exciting young team in hockey, and they’re a little older now.
This series had swung wildly from branch to branch — low-scoring games, breakneck shootouts, lopsided blowouts, no rhyme, no reason. Neither team had been able to consistently impose their will on the other for more than a game, and sometimes for more than a period. Neither team woke up on Friday thinking, we’re definitely going to win this.
Everybody, though, touted the Rangers and their experience — 6-1 in Game 7s the past three years, Lundqvist undefeated in his last 10 elimination games at Madison Square Garden, a laundry list of grace under pressure.
You still have to play, though. Ryan McDonagh, New York’s No. 1 defenceman and captain, left the warmup early, returned to the dressing room within the first few minutes of the game, and took a first shift with 7:19 left in the first, directing a wrist shot wide. But he wasn’t the difference. He played, and at times, played well.
And after New York’s initial push, Tampa imposed its will. Lundqvist had to lunge desperately to knock away a Stamkos deflection that was rotating slow, like a lost satellite in space, and got just enough to nudge the puck over the crossbar. Everyone was playing as carefully as someone meeting their girlfriend’s parents for the first time, but the Lightning were the ones who were knocking on the door.
In the second, Tampa killed off a pair of penalties — one, to Brenden Morrow, was as much of a pure phantom anticipation call as you will ever see — but otherwise played a controlled, calm game, much as they did in Game 5 here. They kept the puck away from Bishop. Tampa, bit by bit, became the better team.
But they couldn’t crack Lundqvist, and you wondered: Would they make the mistake? Would they grow impatient, like they did in Game 6? Kucherov in the left slot, Lundqvist pad save. Jason Garrison at the end of a vintage triplets shift, Lundqvist arm save. Johnson all alone in front and unable to lift the puck, pad save. The Rangers had nine shots at even strength through two periods to 19 for Tampa, and the Lightning shots were better. You can beat Henrik Lundqvist, sure. But it’s not easy.
But they did. One half of the Stanley Cup final is set, whoever wins between the heavy grind of Anaheim or the deadly skill of Chicago won’t scare this team. This team is good for hockey, and good at hockey, and it’s grown up before our eyes.