Lightning ‘don’t know any better,’ beat Rangers in Game 7 to reach Cup final

If you were paying attention to the trends in the Eastern Conference finals, you probably saw this coming. If you were paying more heed to the lessons of history, you were as blindsided by this result as the packed house full of Rangers fans on Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Alex Killorn scored early in the third period through a maze of players and Ondrej Palat added an insurance marker midway through the period as the Tampa Bay Lightning overcame the New York Rangers’ Game 7 mystique and goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s elimination-game magic to advance to the Stanley Cup Final with a 2-0 win.

"We all knew his record," Tampa goalie Ben Bishop said of Lundqvist’s 15-3 mark in games since 2012 in which the Rangers had faced elimination before Friday. "You saw it all over the TV and there weren’t many people picking us, so it’s nice. It kind of gives you a little bit more (motivation)."

It was the Lightning’s second 2-0 win in New York this series, extending Tampa’s shutout streak at Madison Square Garden to 145:43. The Lightning also won Game 5 by that score and allowed just four goals in the four games on the road. 

"I don’t know if we’re so young and dumb and don’t know any better," Tampa coach Jon Cooper said while searching for an explanation. "Every time we as a staff go in and challenge them, they respond."

Tampa hasn’t been to the Stanley Cup Final since winning its only Cup in 2004 in its only appearance. Whichever team the Bolts face — Anaheim and Chicago meet in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET — will need to figure out a way to stop Tampa’s Triplets Line of Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov. That line has accounted for 28 of Tampa’s 55 goals (51 percent) in the playoffs.

Play of the day: Ondrej Palat’s dagger. A few minutes after Bishop made a huge save, Johnson ignited a 3-on-2 with his speed before sending a cross-ice pass to Palat, who blew a shot past Lundqvist’s glove hand for a 2-0 lead with 8:43 left in the third period.

Turning Point: New York had a pair of power-play opportunities in the second period — one that shouldn’t have been called — but failed to cash in on either advantage while mustering a total of two shots on goal in those four minutes.

Three stars

1. Ben Bishop, G, Tampa. Bishop had to make only 22 saves so the defense deserves a major assist here, but he did have a couple big-time stops including a left arm save on a high drive by Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi about three minutes before Tampa scored its second goal of the game.

2. Alex Killorn, F, Tampa. Killorn had the ice-breaking goal and was a consistently aggressive presence in the game.

3. Henrik Lundqvist, G, New York. Lundqvist (23 saves) lost an elimination game but he had no chance on either goal and made a half dozen brilliant saves, like the glove save he made on Jason Garrison and the right pad stop he made on Johnson in this clip:

RECAP

Tampa Bay Lightning 2, New York Rangers 0

Series: Tampa wins, 4-3

Key stat: The Rangers scored 17 goals in just more than nine periods of play in Tampa. They scored four goals in 12 periods of play at Madison Square Garden.

Key stat II: Tampa’s win snapped a six-game win streak in Game 7s for New York. That was tied for the longest streak in NHL history with Detroit (1949-64) and Boston (1983-94).

Best visual: Watch this wacky save by Lundqvist. This is pure reaction as Lundqvist bats a shot by Tampa’s Anton Stralman just over the crossbar to keep the game tied, 0-0, early.

Power couple: There were two commissioners in the house on Friday for Game 7: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

No sacrifice is too great: After the game, New York coach Alain Vigneault revealed that defenseman Ryan McDonagh had been playing on a broken foot. Why are we not surprised? Because this sort of thing happens all the time in the NHL playoffs.

Best quote: "You shine the light bright on our guys and they’ll just put on sunglasses and walk right through it." — Tampa coach Cooper on his team’s ability to win seven of 10 games in the hockey hotbeds of Detroit, Montreal and New York.

What we learned: When Tampa puts its mind to playing team defense, the Lightning are capable of playing at a Stanley-Cup level because their offense is as good as any team’s in the NHL. Tampa allowed 17 New York goals in the three games at Amalie Arena, but when the difficulty of playing on the road tightened its focus, Tampa was at its best. The Lightning are bigger on defense than many analysts realize and the Bolts play a smothering style that is predicated on moving their quick feet and getting sticks in passing and shooting lanes. As this series played out, it felt like the Lightning matured before our eyes.

Next game: Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday against the winner of the Anaheim-Chicago Game 7 on Saturday.

Final thought: Too much has been made of Anaheim’s recent struggles in Game 7s at home. The Ducks have lost a Game 7 the past two seasons (to Detroit and Los Angeles) at Honda Center — site of Saturday’s Game 7 against the Blackhawks — but two games hardly comprise an ample sample size and it should also be noted that Chicago dropped Game 7 of the Western Conference finals at home last season to Los Angeles. The Ducks have been the better team in the games played at Honda Center, winning two and losing the third in triple-overtime. On the other hand, Chicago always seems to get better as series progress and the Blackhawks played their best game of the series in a 5-2 win in Game 6. Let’s just call this matchup what it is: a toss-up with epic potential in front of a national audience on NBC.  

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