Game 7 will pit Tampa Bay’s superior puck possession against Henrik Lundqvist’s New York Rangers and the juju of Madison Square Garden.
The New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning have delivered exactly what we hoped they would. We’ve gotten mostly fantastic goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist and wildly unpredictable goaltending from Ben Bishop. We’ve seen the NHL’s two fastest teams trade chances in a warp-speed transition game leading to breakaways and comebacks. Steven Stamkos and Rick Nash have awakened. Martin St-Louis and Ryan Callahan have scored on their former teams.
So it’s perfectly fitting to see these two teams clash in a Game 7 tonight. Who ya got? It depends on what you value most: veteran goaltending and the mystique of a storied arena or good, old-fashioned scoring chances, the symptom of possessing the puck more than the other team. Can you guess which side I fall on?
Here are five reasons why the Tampa Bay Lightning will prevail in Game 7.
5. The Johnson-Kucherov-Palat line is in Henrik Lundqvist’s head
Nikita Kucherov has beaten ‘King Henrik’ three times in six games. Ondrej Palat has beaten King Henrik three times in six games. Tyler Johnson has beaten King Henrik four times in six games. Lundqvist has been more than good enough for the Rangers through the series but, goodness, 10 goals from one line? Some came on the power play, so the line hasn’t generated all those goals at even strength together. But the point is Tampa will ice a trio that absolutely owns Lundqvist right now.
Lundqvist spoke about Tampa’s high-flying attack after Game 3, in which the Triplet Line members sniped four goals:
“It’s really challenging for me, the way they move the puck and find open ice for the shot, the way they get scoring chances from right in front.”
We know how fantastic Lundqvist is in elimination games, but if there’s one major chink in his armor, it’s his inability to stop the Triplets.
4. The Bolts have played better on the road than at home all spring
How many times have we heard during telecasts the Bolts “look nervous” on home ice? It’s strange. They’re 5-5 at Amalie Arena this post-season versus 6-3 on the road. They’ve allowed four or more goals five times – all at home. Ben Bishop’s home save percentage in the playoffs: .888. On the road: .943. Forget big, bad Madison Square Garden. The numbers suggest the Lightning should click their heels at the prospect of playing Game 7 away from home.
3. Steven Stamkos has never played harder
Talk of Stamkos struggling feels like forever ago. Did it even happen? He’s been possessed against the Rangers. He has four goals and seven points in the series, but his contribution goes beyond the scoresheet. Stamkos looks ornery out there. He’s played 101 games for Tampa in 2014-15, and his two highest single-game hit totals, a six and a seven, have come in the Rangers series. All that training with Gary Roberts has sculpted ‘Stammer’ into a brick of a man, and he’s finally realizing that. A team peaks when its superstar leaves everything he has on the ice. Stamkos is playing that way right now.
2. Tampa has dominated puck possession in the series
The primary reason we endorsed Tampa Bay as our Stanley Cup pick to start the playoffs: advanced statistics. The last three Cup champs ranked no worse than second in Corsi Close in the regular season, and the Lightning led the way in that statistic for 2014-15, per puckalytics.com. The team that generates more shot attempts than its opponent eventually outlasts said opponent, at least according to the recent trends.
Per war-on-ice.com, Tampa Bay bested the Rangers in score-adjusted Corsi For percentage in Games 3, 4, 5 and 6. Odd, isn’t it? The Rangers won two of those games and scored 17 goals over that four-game stretch, yet the Lightning still outplayed them in terms of shot attempts. Recent history suggests fortune will shift toward the more dominant possession team soon enough. How about in Game 7?
1. We know the Rangers are clutch. But so are the Lightning
Lundqvist has won six consecutive Game 7s, posting a goals-against average of less than 1.00 across those do-or-die affairs. Unbelievable. The Rangers are 15-3 in elimination games since 2012 and 4-0 in elimination games this post-season. They’re 4-1 in overtime this spring, too.
But should this clutch juju spook the Lightning if they’re clutch? The Bolts have faced elimination twice in these playoffs, (obviously) winning both times, with Bishop allowing two goals combined over those games. Tampa is 3-0 in overtime and is the only team to beat the Blueshirts in overtime. It even stunned Montreal in the second round on a winning goal by Johnson with two seconds left on the clock.
So while the Rangers have been exemplary in the clutch, the Lightning have shown nothing but a steady hand in high-stakes situations of their own. It really makes Lundqvist and the Rangers seem a lot less scary in a Game 7.
And it’s funny how the Myth of The Mighty Game 7 Rangers can overshadow so many important numbers in this series. A closer look suggests the Bolts have a better chance of winning – and that they’re better set up to do so at MSG than at home.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin