The Game 7s of the NHL’s conference finals weren’t as exciting as the each series overall was, particularly Chicago-Anaheim, which went for thrill-a-minute to Game 7 clunker. But Tampa Bay-NY Rangers produced a good game, and in the end the Blackhawks and Lightning advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Tampa Bay won 2-0 in Madison Square Garden in a tense game that was scoreless over two periods and play-by-play man Doc Emrick on NBC Sports Network said what I was thinking—that the game was a lot like an Eastern Conference Finals Game 7 back in 2011, when Tampa lost in Boston 1-0 on a third-period goal.
But in that ’11 game, the Lightning were outshot and outplayed up and down the ice and it just took until the third period for it to catch up with them. This time they were in control on the defensive end. I can’t recall the Rangers ever really getting serious chances to score—at the very least, Ben Bishop didn’t have to make any spectacular saves.
New York’s Rick Nash continued to be AWOL when it came to simply shooting the puck and the Rangers’ best offensive player only took one shot at the net. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was as good as expected—in fact, he was the one making spectacular saves, twice denying the Lightning when they had open shots close-in.
It made the goal that finally but Tampa on the board a little ironic—Alex Killorn’s shot got under Lundqvist’s legs and kind of squirted through. It was a tough way to give up the goal that beats you—and Tampa added another with just under nine minutes to go to win it.
Even though Tampa Bay only outshot New York 25-22, that stat doesn’t show the quality of the Lightning looks was much better, as epitomized by the two spectacular saves Lundqvist had to make. Those weren’t the ones that got through, but the simple math of hockey is that when you get consistently better looks than your opponent, the bounce of the puck eventually goes your way.
Tampa Bay won because they were the better team on Friday night, and even though New York won the President’s Trophy, the Lightning just seem to be the more talented team up and down the lineup. When they get goaltending, they’re very difficult to beat.
Now let’s get to Chicago’s 5-3 win over Anaheim on Saturday night. The score doesn’t do justice to just how thoroughly the Blackhawks dominated this game. They scored the game’s first four goals and on every single one, you can’t blame goalie Frederick Andersen.
Jonathan Toews set the tone in the first period when he got in front of the net for an easy putback. It set a pattern of Chicago consistently getting close to the net, not being seriously contested and scoring on shots that Andersen had no realistic chance to stop.
What makes that so surprising is that all series long, the Ducks had been the more physical team, countering the great Blackhawk talent with constant hitting. Anaheim’s Corey Perry said that no human could withstand the pounding the Ducks were administering. Well, apparently Anaheim got tired of hitting.
Chicago had players open in front of the net, they had odd-man rushes, they dominated defensively until Anaheim started piling up shots in desperation. The 38 shots the Ducks took is not indicative of the fact that there were few quality looks when the 4-0 lead was being built up. Anaheim did cut the lead to 4-2, but Chicago answered right back, before a meaningless goal with 41 seconds left made the final score respectable.
All of this is the long way of saying that the Blackhawks looked ready to play a winner-take-all game to reach the Stanley Cup Finals and the Ducks looked ready to play a September preseason scrimmage.
Congratulations to both Tampa Bay and Chicago. A friend of mine has already dubbed this “The Lovie Smith Finals”, in honor of the current Buccaneers coach who used to work for the Bears. The action starts on Wednesday night in Tampa Bay. TheSportsNotebook will have a Finals preview coming early in the week.