The drama throughout May has been provided by the NHL rather than the NBA, so it’s fitting that both of hockey’s conference finals are going to a Game 7, promising a weekend of heart-stopping drama on both coasts.
The New York Rangers beat the Tampa Bay Lightning on the road in Game 6, meaning the Rangers now have four straight wins in elimination games, tracing back to their rally from 3-1 down to beat the Washington Capitals in the second round.
Let’s also remember the Rangers rallied from 3-1 down a year ago to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in round two. New York is quite comfortable playing in this kind of high-pressure atmosphere.
One thing we also know from this series is that momentum is non-existent, so in spite of Tampa Bay playing an absolutely atrocious third period, giving up four goals, plus an empty-netter. A game that had been compelling for the first two periods, with New York holding a 2-1 lead, turned into a sloppy joke in the final 20 minutes.
It was a bad night for Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, but keep in mind that Bishop has already bounced back from poor home showings to play well on the road. He did it in most notably in Game 5.
Furthermore, home ice advantage in hockey is perhaps less consequential than in any other sport. It means more to the fans, who get to be there and the scalpers who get to make money, then it does in predicting the outcome.
Each team has shown they can win playing the other’s style. The defense-first Rangers held that 2-1 lead in Game 6 in spite of Tampa unloading 29 shots in the first two periods. The Lightning won a grinding fifth game that should have favored New York.
The key to watch in this game is the aggressiveness in Steven Stamkos for the Lightning and Rick Nash for the Rangers. They don’t need to score per se, but they need to put it on net, make the goalies make saves and create chances close in for their teammates.
BATTLE IN THE WEST
Anaheim missed their chance to close with a shaky outing in Chicago’s United Center. Goalie Frederik Andersen had come undone at the end of Game 5 before he got bailed out early in overtime. This time around, after a first period that seemed to have both teams in the feel-each-other-out stage, Andersen gave up a flurry of three goals in four minutes in the second period.
Although the Ducks closed to within 3-2 with more than 18 minutes to play, Chicago pulled back away to win 5-2.
In Chicago’s favor is that they have proven championship players and goaltender Corey Crawford seems to be in a bit better shape than Andersen right now. Neither is going to remind anyone of Ken Dryden anytime soon, but Anaheim has to be gravely worried about where their goalie’s head is at.
In Anaheim’s favor is that they still nearly rallied in Game 6 in spite of the deep hole on the road against a desperate and experienced team, and in spite of star forward Corey Perry being AWOL much of the game with only one shot. Perry has been mostly aggressive in this series and I would expect to see him return to form for Game 7.
Moreover, Anaheim has forced the style of play they want. Forget any stereotypes of SoCal softness—it’s the Ducks who are the most physical team left in the postseason and they’re pounding the Blackhawks hard. Presuming officials continue to let everyone play in Game 7, it’s going to remain a big challenge for Chicago to get their talented skaters loose in the open ice against a vulnerable goalie.
At the start of the postseason I picked Tampa Bay and Chicago to meet in the Stanley Cup Finals. There’s no reason to back off that now. Time for a great two days of hockey, with action from Madison Square Garden on Friday night and then out west in Anaheim on Saturday night.
Both games start at 8 PM ET. The Friday game will be on NBC Sports Network, with Saturday night being on the mother ship at NBC.