In the 2014 playoffs as well as the current Stanley Cup tournament, the New York Rangers have proven adept at pulling themselves back from the precipice of post-season elimination. So to see them pull out a win to force a Game 7 as they did Tuesday in their 7-3 Game 6 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning isn't the biggest shock in the hockey world.
What is shocking, however, is the way the Bolts and goaltender Ben Bishop are crumbling. A young Tampa team that shackled the Blueshirts' offense through the first few games of the Eastern Conference Final has become disheveled and disinterested in playing defense. And now they've got to go into the world's most famous arena and beat the defending conference champs to avoid an embarrassing exit.
The Lightning did keep the score close through the first 40 minutes of Game 6. They did outshoot the Rangers 39-34 and were the better possession team. But the visitors outshot the Bolts 16-10 in the third period and scored five of their seven goals in the final frame, forcing Bishop out of the game at the 7:14 mark of the third after surrendering five goals on 26 shots. And while Bishop wasn't the sole reason Tampa Bay lost, the fact remains he's now posted a save percentage of .821 or lower in three of his past four games. The 28-year-old has recorded two shutouts in 19 playoff games this year and has demonstrated he can win in low-scoring contests, but in his past three losses he's allowed 15 goals. Unacceptable, to say the least.
Also unacceptable: the Bolts' defense corps, which allowed the opposition's forwards to maraud through Tampa Bay's defensive zone with relative impunity. They had no answer whatsoever for Blueshirts Derick Brassard, who scored a hat trick (including two goals in the third) and added a pair of assists Tuesday. The same went for Rangers winger Rick Nash – who had his best playoff game with a goal and four points – and youngster J.T. Miller, who scored his first career NHL playoff goal and added three assists.
By contrast, Tampa Bay's collection of forwards, who have helped deliver them this far in the post-season, couldn't solve star goalie Henrik Lundqvist early on. And although Nikita Kucherov scored two goals late in Game 6, many of the players who've stepped up with timely goals through the first two rounds and first four game of the Eastern Final – captain Steven Stamkos and wingers Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat – were unable to get on the scoresheet at all Tuesday. It doesn't have to be any one of them in particular who comes up with a huge goal or two in Game 7, but they can't keep relying on Tyler Johnson (who had a pair of assists to give him 20 points in 19 games and keep him atop the NHL playoff scoring race) to do all the damage.
The way this series has swung back-and-forth, there's no reason to imagine the Rangers will blow Tampa Bay's doors off Friday as they've done more often than not of late. Two days of practice will give Bolts coach Jon Cooper ample time to prepare his players for the mental and physical rigors of a Game 7 against a veteran opponent – and remember, the Lightning have already won one Game 7 this post-season when they beat the Red Wings 2-0 to win their first-round showdown with Detroit. But the challenge for both teams is clear: limit your defensive miscues at all costs, because each squad has competitors with the skill and will to make you regret them.
Sure, there's a chance Lundqvist or Bishop rises to the occasion and steals Game 7 virtually singlehandedly. But considering how the first six games have gone down, a low-scoring deciding matchup probably isn't going to happen – and the team that minimizes its mistakes will be the one moving on to the Stanley Cup Final.