Lightning unfazed by Game 7 vs. Rangers at Madison Square Garden
TAMPA, Fla. -- The blue equipment bags that read "TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING HOCKEY CLUB" in small white letters on the side were scattered throughout the dressing room Thursday morning at Amalie Arena, each one awaiting a dash to the airport.
The voices from players seemed loose and calm despite a Game 7 against the New York Rangers set for Friday night at Madison Square Garden, a moment that will either extend their season or cut short a chance to kiss the Cup.
The Lightning have heard the rumbles from the North: The Rangers are 7-0 all-time in Game 7 matchups at Madison Square Garden; the Rangers have momentum after earning a chance to return home with a dominating third period in Game 6; the Rangers are the group with veteran savvy, Stanley Cup Final experience and reason to believe that they can rally from behind for the second consecutive series in these Stanley Cup Playoffs and live another day.
Tampa Bay's response: Bring it.
"The past and the records and everything are great, but they're kind of irrelevant in a way," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. "It's a game. It's 60 minutes of whatever team wants to win it more. The start of the game, it starts at 0-0. So it really doesn't matter what you did in the past. It doesn't matter what we did in the past. It's game on when that puck drops."
It will be game on come Friday night, all right, and Tampa Bay should embrace all what this moment represents. It's a chance to reach the franchise's first Stanley Cup Final since 2004. It's a chance to quiet another crazed New York crowd. It's a chance to make right the wrongs from an awful third period Tuesday, when chants from Rangers fans in the waning minutes chased visions of a blue-and-white party by the bay.
Frankly, the Lightning should carry confidence, even with their dud of a finish in Game 6. They've made a mess of Madison Square Garden of late in posting a 2-0 record there in the regular season and winning two of three games in the storied building during this series. Don't expect them to wilt when they walk into the season's hottest spotlight.
"We've played there enough now where it's not anything new, the building," Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop said. "I don't think it really matters where it is."
Forget the location. Become numb to the numbers. Johnson is right: Trends and records are interesting for fans and media, but such things shouldn't faze players.
The Lightning, after all, have an opportunity to create history of their own. As their performance in Games 6 and 7 against the Detroit Red Wings and in Game 6 against the Montreal Canadiens showed, they play best when urgency is involved. They've shown teeth when placed in an alley scrap.
This event will be a five-alarm fight.
"I don't think we have much to lose, honestly," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "I think the pressure is on them. I think everybody expects them to win the Cup, and they're playing in front of their fans. I don't think we have a lot of pressure on us right now. I think we can relax and enjoy this Game 7 and have some fun with it."
The fun will come if they take a chunk out of the Big Apple again.
The fun will come if they replay Game 5 and avoid poor habits from Games 4 and 6.
The fun will come if they fly home with the Stanley Cup Final before them, all those trends and history in the Rangers' favor buried in the past.
Still, all those possible good vibes won't be earned easily. There's the chance that the Lightning squandered their best opportunity to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup Final with their late fall Tuesday. And even with their recent success at Madison Square Garden, this trip back to New York includes risk. The Rangers play best when they're behind as well.
So we'll learn more about these Lightning, who have already offered many lessons throughout the past month about their stamina and will.
Can Bishop and the defense recover after allowing no fewer than five goals in three of the past four games? Can Johnson recapture his offensive spark after being held without a goal in the past three contests, his second-longest drought of the postseason? Can Tampa Bay meet the moment, one with so much at stake, one with the potential for exhilaration or extreme heartbreak?
"You can't be nervous," Lightning winger Ryan Callahan said. "There will be nerves. But you get that first shift out of the way, that first shot, that goes all on the wayside. And it's another game. It's going to be fun. It's a conference finals and Game 7 at MSG. It's going to be an exciting night."