With a victory Friday night, the New York Rangers will be heading to the Stanley Cup final for the second consecutive year. The only thing standing in their way is the Tampa Bay Lightning. But worry not, Rangers fans, because your team has the edge.
Though the Lightning have been one of the best teams in the league all campaign and have been impressive through the first two rounds of the post-season, there’s something to be said for the continued success of one club, and that the Rangers have been able to maintain their play over the course of the past two years bodes well for them to keep things rolling as they head into Game 7 Friday night.
It may not be easy – and in all likelihood it could be a nail-biting, one-goal game – but there are five big reasons why the Rangers will be moving on to the final.
5. Home-ice advantage
The Rangers weren’t just good during the regular season, they were the best team in the entire league. Thus, along with capturing the Presidents’ Trophy, the Blueshirts also locked up home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, and it couldn’t be more important heading into Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.
Set aside all talk of the Rangers, “feeding off the energy in the building,” or, “knowing the bounces.” What home ice really boils down to is that now, in the most important game of the Rangers’ season, coach Alain Vigneault will have last change and be able to match his lines better. Should Steven Stamkos hit the ice without Derick Brassard and Rick Nash lining up across the ice – Stamkos’ two most common Rangers’ forward opponents this series – Vigneault can correct that and make sure he gets the matchups he wants.
Were the Lightning to have home ice, you can be sure they would have set up to make sure their top line stars take advantage of any opportunity given to them with line matching. The same can be said for the Rangers, and Game 7 plays directly into their hands.
4. Scoring in close games
It’s been a bizarre post-season for the Rangers in that they’ve won nine of their 11 games by a single goal. That shouldn’t be surprising, either, because of the teams to make it through at least one round, the Rangers have the fourth-best shot attempts for percentage, 50.3 percent, when the score is close this post-season. As for the Lightning, they’ve been rolling around at a 49 percent clip, which just so happens to be the fifth best.
In the Eastern Conference final, there has been a bit of a role reversal, with Tampa Bay finding the back of the net with the score tight once more than the Rangers, but over the course of the post-season New York’s penchant for playing, and winning, tight games could turn the tide in their favor.
The Rangers have been able to burn the Lightning for five-plus goals in three of the six games thus far, so if they can score with the game close and build up a lead quickly, it will be all over for the Lightning.
3. Rick Nash is finally finding his scoring touch
Throughout the regular season, Nash was one of the best goal scorers in the league, finding the back of the net 42 times and registering 69 points in 79 games. In the post-season, however, he stumbled out of the gates, scoring just twice through the first 12 games. That’s suddenly changed over the past three games, though.
Since Game 4, Nash has three goals and seven points – half of his point total – and when the 6-foot-4 left winger gets going, he can be hard to stop. His two goals in Game 4 helped power the Rangers to a 5-1 victory to even the series 2-2, and his one-goal, four-point outburst in Tuesday’s Game 6 helped make Game 7 a reality for New York.
Nash can be an absolute terror and with Vigneault having the last change and the ability to get the right matchups for Nash, it could be time for the Rangers star to start making people forget about his play over the past two rounds.
2. Big game and Game 7 experience
Will there be nerves for the Rangers? Undoubtedly. Will they be anywhere close to what the Lightning are feeling? Probably not.
Both teams have played in Game 7s this post-season – the Lightning beat the Detroit Red Wings in seven in the first round, the Rangers downed the Washington Capitals in OT of Game 7 in Round 2 – but the Rangers have been a part of three in the past two seasons and have won them all. The Rangers playing in, and winning, a Game 7 is becoming somewhat of a playoff tradition.
Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop was rock solid in Game 7 against the Red Wings, shutting Detroit out and helping his club advance to the second round, but he’s got a ways to go before he’s close to the goaltender at the other end.
1. ‘King’ of Game 7s, Henrik Lundqvist
Lundqvist has only allowed more than one goal against in a Game 7 once in seven series-deciding contests, and even then he only allowed two goals. He has won six straight Game 7s. His save percentage in seventh games is .962 and goals-against average is an astounding 0.92. Like Bishop, Lundqvist has a Game 7 shutout under his belt. If there has ever been a goaltender that has a history of performing well in Game 7s, it’s Lundqvist, and that’s including Hall of Famers such as Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur.
Lundqvist is a difference-maker for the Rangers and has been since he entered the league in 2005-06. He hasn’t been his normal, outstanding self against the Lightning – he allowed six goals against in back-to-back games – but he bounced back after those games turning aside 38 of 39 shots in Game 4 as the Rangers tied the series with a 5-1 win.
The Lightning peppered Lundqvist with 39 shots again in Game 6, but ‘King Henrik’ stopped all but three as the Rangers rolled to a 7-3 victory to force Game 7. He hasn’t been easy to beat in the past three outings and it’s going to have to be a 30-plus shot game for Tampa Bay to have a chance. Even still, Lundqvist lives for Game 7, and he should be walking out of Madison Square Garden with a 7-1 record in seventh games.