The bugler was not supposed to blow Taps for the Rangers. No way.
Confetti and cheers for the Blueshirts were to cascade down at The Garden on Friday night and plans for the Stanley Cup Final were to be studied.
Playing golf was to be only an afterthought for the Blueshirts at this point in time.
Unfortunately, the Tampa Bay Lightning had other plans; namely pulling off an upset on Seventh Avenue and that they did to the sorrowful tune of a 2-0 decision, thanks to another Ben Bishop blanking resembling that of Game 5 at The Garden.
“We were right there,” explained a dejected Henrik Lundqvist who had played valiantly, keeping his team alive throughout. “It was a tight game and if we get a bounce and a big play at the right time, it would have been a different score. It was that tight of a game, but we came up short. We worked really long and hard to get here and be in this position. To come up short, it’s tough.”
Among the questions to be answered:
OFFENSE: How could the team that so outplayed the Lightning in Tampa Bay in Game 6 offer a lesser offense before a roaring home crowd?
ANSWER: The Lightning stifled the Rangers at the blue line and neutral zone. Unlike Tuesday night’s game, the Florida sextet was stingy with giveaways in its defensive zone.
POWER PLAY: Only two penalties were called, both against the visitors. With the man advantage, the Blueshirts could not summon a major threat against Bishop, who had played the sieve only one game before.
ANSWER: The New Yorkers seemed to be trying too hard to make the perfect play and didn’t sufficiently blitz the tall Tampa goalie.
THE GUNNERS: Derick Brassard‘s sixth-game hat trick evaporated from memory as he was blanked in the finale. Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Martin St. Louis and the other big offensive players for the Blueshirts could not sufficiently penetrate a suffocating group of checkers.
ANSWER: The Rangers were mostly kept to the outside by the Lightning defenders, preventing high-quality chances. When there were threats, Bishop handled them with aplomb.
ENERGY: Did the Rangers run out of gas between Tuesday’s win and Game 7?
ANSWER: It seemed more a question of the Law of Averages catching up with the Rangers’ skein of winning Game 7s.
THE ONE-GAME DELAY: Normally, the seventh game would have been played on Thursday night at The Garden, but it was pushed ahead to Friday because of a prior Garden concert commitment. Did that extra day of rest benefit the Bolts more than the Rangers who lost whatever momentum had been built in the 7-3 Lightning triumph at Amalie Arena on Tuesday?
ANSWER: It clearly helped the visitors, enabling several Tampa players to recover from the flu bug that had bit the Bolts.
A FORGOTTEN CONFIDENCE BUILDER: While the Rangers overwhelmed the Bolts in Game 6, Jon Cooper’s club beat Lundqvist twice late in the game. Those goals could very well have been a major confidence builder for Tampa Bay heading into the series-closer. Was that, in fact, a factor?
ANSWER: Cooper allowed that those two goals gave his club a boost. “But we knew we could beat Henrik Lundqvist,” he added. “We had done it during the regular season.”
The most basic answer to the abrupt Rangers’ exit was that the Floridians were more opportunistic.
“Our guys played real hard,” said Alain Vigneault, “and battled real hard. This is very disappointing to us.”
The Rangers’ coach revealed that Ryan McDonagh had been playing in a “couple of games” on a broken foot.
But what about some key Rangers?
“You’re in the third period 0-0, it’s never a bad idea to shoot. They found a way to get a couple and we just didn’t.
“I’m proud of this group. We fought through some injuries this season. But we’re going home and they’re not.”
“It was a 20-minute game going into the third. Win the period, you win the conference.”
MARTIN ST. LOUIS:
“It’s tough. I wouldn’t have guessed we would lose three games in a row at home.”
“We played a lot of good hockey this season and we played a lot of good playoff hockey. But it’s just the way it went.”
Cooper revealed that several of his players had come down with the flu prior to Game 6.
“Having the extra day off was a big help to us,” Cooper pointed out. “The guys [who were sick] benefitted from that.”
Despite the 0-0 deadlock going into the third period, the Lightning had matched the Rangers’ chance for chance and were outshooting the Blueshirts. The Bolts’ winning goal — delivered by Alex Killorn — was a backhander from the slot at 1:54 of the final frame.
“It seemed to have eyes,” Killorn recalled of the shot that went through Lundqvist’s five-hole.
From that point until the 11-minute mark of the third period, Lundqvist kept his club close with a number of excellent saves. But Ondrej Palat scored the cushion goal at 11:17 from Tyler Johnson and Bishop.
Tenacious Tampa Bay checking and Bishop’s alert goaltending frustrated the Rangers from that point to the moment when Vigneault pulled his goalie for an extra skater with 3:44 remaining but the Lightning would not be denied.
SEVEN REASONS FOR THE FINAL RESULT:
1. The Rangers’ victory in Game 6 fueled the feeling among many of us — me, of course being part of it — that the Rangers’ blitz would continue through Friday night. In a sense, we suffered a build-up to a letdown.
2. The extra day rest helped the Lightning more than the Rangers.
3. At no time during the final game did Bishop betray the weaknesses that he suffered in the Tampa losses. Only once in the deciding game did he fall to the ice and have difficulty regaining his position. By that time his defensemen had cleared the puck.
4. Once the Lightning had blunted Ranger offensives in the first period and emerged tied 0-0, the deadlock gave the visitors incentive that they could play the New Yorkers even.
5. The feeling of confidence on the Bolts’ bench grew as the Rangers failed to score through two periods. It now came down to the first team getting a goal and then winning the game.
6. Facing Lundqvist in Game 7 did not faze the Lightning. “We knew we could beat him,” concluded Cooper, “just as we had during the regular season.”
7. Two marathon seasons in a row take a toll on teams that reach the Final one year and try to do it again. For example, the 2014 Cup champion Kings didn’t even make the playoffs this Spring. I’m convinced that the toll may — in some undefinable ways — simply have de-energized the Blueshirts by Friday night through no fault of their own.
BOTTOM LINE: Disappointing though the final result of Game 7 may have been, it should not be overlooked that the Rangers were the Presidents’ Trophy winners and produced eight months of terrific hockey. Congratulations to the Blueshirts for those wonderful months of wins.
BEST, WORST, AND MOST UNUSUAL OF GAME 7
- MOST UNUSUAL PREGAME DECISION:
Vigneualt scratched forward James Sheppard and replaced him with defenseman Matt Hunwick, dressing 11 forwards and seven defensemen. The switch was prompted by a possible injury to McDonagh, who did not take a shift until midway though the period.
- BEST SAVE OF THE FIRST PERIOD:
Just past the 12-minute mark, Steven Stamkos deflected a shot from just outside the crease. Lundqvist fought off the shot and got just enough leather on the puck to put it over the crossbar.
- BEST TEAM IN THE FIRST PERIOD:
While the Rangers made a strong push in the opening five minutes, the Lightning controlled the flow of play; they outshot the home team 9-5 in the opening frame. On the other hand, the Rangers had an advantage in the faceoff dot, winning nine out of 14 draws.
- WORST ATTEMPT AT GETTING UP FROM BEING HORIZONTAL:
Positioned at the edge of the crease, Bishop made a save and hit the ice. It took several attempts to regain his footing.
- WORST CALL OF THE SECOND PERIOD:
With Nash streaking into the offensive zone, Brenden Morrow dove to lift the winger’s stick. He executed the play perfectly, but was called for a phantom hook.
- WORST PENALTY OF THE MIDDLE FRAME:
The Lightning were dictating the pace until they took an ill-advised too many men on the ice penalty. But the Rangers couldn’t connect.
- BEST SPECIAL-TEAMS PLAY OF THE PERIOD:
Tampa killed both New York penalties with relative ease; the Rangers on the other hand, only mustered two shots on goal during two power plays.
- BEST SAVE OF THE PERIOD:
With under two minutes left in the middle frame, Lundqvist denied a one-timer from Johnson with his right pad to keep the game tied at zero.
- WORST MISTAKE:
When Killorn threw a soft backhand on net, the puck leaked through Lundqvist’s pads to give the Lightning the lead.
- BEST SAVE OF THE THIRD PERIOD:
Cedric Paquette looked poised to score an insurance goal, but Lundqvist’s sprawling pad save kept the Rangers’ season alive.
- BEST PASS OF THE FINAL FRAME:
Leading a three-on-two rush, Johnson threaded a cross-ice pass to Palat; the left wing beat Lundqvist at 11:17 of the period to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead.