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7 keys for Lightning in Game 7 vs. Rangers

 
Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, a former Ranger, is 6-0 in Game 7s. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, a former Ranger, is 6-0 in Game 7s. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published May 29, 2015

NEW YORK

Seven.

By itself, it's just a number. Nothing really significant about it unless you dig that Brad Pitt-Morgan Freeman thriller with the demented ending.

Want special? Put the word "Game" in front of "Seven." Write it like this: Game 7.

Now you're cooking. Nothing in sports is better than a Game 7, especially when you're talking the Stanley Cup playoffs. Tonight, however, fans of the Lightning might find it hard to enjoy the nail-biting, heart-pounding, hair-pulling, stomach-curling, fist-pounding thrills of a Game 7.

"Two words: Game 7," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "I don't think it needs much more of an introduction than that. … Growing up in the streets as a kid, you don't say you scored the winning goal in Game 1. So it's a pretty exciting time."

Of course, Tampa Bay fans will enjoy the experience a whole lot more if the Lightning wins against the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final at Madison Square Garden. It won't be easy, given the Rangers' all-time home record in Game 7s: a perfect 7-0.

"For us," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said, "it's business as usual."

But a win by the Lightning isn't impossible when you consider it has already won twice at MSG in this series.

So how does the Lightning pull off a victory in Game 7? Here are seven things the Lightning must do to beat the Rangers and move on to the Stanley Cup final.

1. Score first

. You always hear about how important home-ice advantage is and how teams play all season to get a Game 7 at home. But road teams are 65-94 all time in Game 7s. Not a winning record, but not too bad. However, scoring first is a big deal in Game 7. The team that scores first in a Game 7 is 117-42. Meantime, the Lightning is 8-0 in these playoffs when it scores the first goal. It is 3-8 when its opponent scores first.

2. Rely on the veterans

. The overwhelming story line is how the Rangers are so good at home in Game 7s, and yes, that cannot be denied. But here's something to remember: Two players who are a big part of that New York success in Game 7s are now with the Lightning. That would be defenseman Anton Stralman, who is 6-0 in Game 7s, and forward Brian Boyle, who is 5-0. In addition, defenseman Matt Carle is 4-0 in Game 7s, and forward Ryan Callahan is 4-1, as is defenseman Braydon Coburn. So the Rangers are not the only ones with a successful Game 7 history. Those Lightning players will have to lead tonight.

3. Big game from 'Bish'

. Lightning goalie Ben Bishop has to have a huge game. Don't look for a 6-5 slugfest. This is going to be a tight-checking, low-scoring affair. Most Game 7s are. One goal might be enough. No soft goals allowed. The guy at the other end, Henrik Lundqvist, is one of the best Game 7 goalies ever. He is 6-1 in Game 7s and has given up an average of less than a goal a game. Advantage Rangers, right? Probably, but let's not forget: Bishop pitched a shutout in his lone Game 7, back in the first round against the Red Wings.

4. An unlikely scorer

. Sure, the Lightning would love for Steven Stamkos or the "Triplets" line to stay hot and lead the score sheet, but often, Game 7 stars are unlikely ones. Ruslan Fedotenko scored both goals in the Lightning's Game 7 Stanley Cup-clinching victory in 2004. Over history, other Game 7 heroes have included the likes of Ed Westfall, Max Talbot, David Volek and Stephane Matteau — none of them considered stars.

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5. Keep their cool

. Typically, not a lot of penalties are called in Game 7s. Referees would rather swallow their whistles and let players decide the outcome. When the Lightning lost to the Bruins in Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference final, it had zero power plays. Officials will let lots go unless the players force them to call penalties for recklessness, such as roughing, high-sticking, cross-checking and the like. The message: play hard but don't play stupid.

6. Dump it in, chip it out

. Forget fancy. Don't dipsy-doodle. Cut out the cute. Game 7s aren't pretty. They are ugly, dirty, grinding. The Lightning, a team that might have more pure hockey skill than any team in hockey, needs to remember that. It needs to play smart. No drop passes in the neutral zone. No blind passes. No defensemen taking risks by going too deep into the offensive zone. When there's even the slightest doubt about what to do, do the simple thing. Dump the puck deep into the Rangers' zone. Get the puck out of your end by passing it off the glass. The Lightning has enough skill to eventually create scoring chances and enough skill to score a goal or two. You don't want to give a goal or two back by being careless with the puck.

7. Get some luck

. To win a Game 7, you have to have a break or two. Maybe Bishop can get help from the goal posts. Maybe the Lightning will get a goal off a crazy, accidental deflection. Maybe a Rangers player will break a stick at an inopportune time. How can you plan for something like that? You can't. But if you're in the right spots, if you're playing intelligently, if you're working hard, you'll be in the position to take advantage of a little puck luck.

Final thought

An unlikely star. Playing smartly. Playing coolly. Great goaltending. If all this happens for the Lightning, then Game 7 of the conference final will turn into something even better:

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.