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Leonard: It's up to Henrik Lundqvist to save Rangers' season

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If the Rangers want to come back to Madison Square Garden for Game 7, it is Henrik Lundqvist who must do what it takes to get them there.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

If the Rangers want to come back to Madison Square Garden for Game 7, it is Henrik Lundqvist who must do what it takes to get them there.

TAMPA – So the Rangers’ task to keep their season alive is to win one game, Game 6 on Tuesday night, at the Lightning’s Amalie Arena. They also will have to win Game 7 on Friday to advance to the Stanley Cup Final and face either Chicago or Anaheim, but there is no benefit now to thinking of this challenge as “Win two or go home.”

Acknowledging the larger sample size favors Tampa.

Not only does the Lightning hold a 3-2 lead in this Eastern Conference final; Jon Cooper’s team has won six of eight total meetings with the Blueshirts, including a three-game regular season series sweep.

Yes, the Rangers just overcame a 3-1 deficit to Washington in the second round for just the second time in their history, but this is a much more offensively-gifted opponent. The best way for the Rangers to approach this is to think about just winning one game, and to acknowledge it will take absolutely everything they have – and nothing less – to do so.

Because if there is one certainty, it is that the Lightning has absolutely no designs on returning to Manhattan for a Game 7, a situation in which the Rangers are fairly successful, maybe you’ve heard (7-0 all-time). And that means Tampa Bay – which played defensively sound road hockey to shut out the Rangers, 2-0, in Game 5 – is probably going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the King on Tuesday.

“We know the feeling of the opportunity to close it out at home, and we know they don’t want to come back to MSG for Game 7,” defenseman Marc Staal said Monday evening at the team hotel.

So again, it comes back to “him” – “the guy,” as Alain Vigneault called him the other day – Henrik Lundqvist.

He is not the one responsible for the Rangers’ short-circuiting Game 5 offense. He is not the one who needs to improve by leaps and bounds from Sunday night’s defeat. But he is the key that unlocks everything for the Blueshirts in these big moments, and everyone knows it.

Whatever matchups were supposed to favor either team entering this series, here was the unmistakable one that favored the Rangers: Lundqvist (making his 110th career playoff start on Tuesday) versus Ben Bishop (making start number 18).

When the Rangers climbed back on the Capitals, they clawed out 2-1 wins in Games 5 and 7, with Derek Stepan dramatically clinching the series in overtime. But recall in Game 6 – despite the fact that the Rangers led, 4-1, at Washington’s hostile Verizon Center with 15:36 to play – they did not get a single shot on goal thereafter.

They only won because Lundqvist made 42 saves on 45 shots compared to Braden Holtby’s 24 stops on 28 pucks. The Caps took a blistering 96 shot attempts to just 55 by the Rangers, including a third period onslaught for the ages that saw Evgeny Kuznetsov and Joel Ward score to narrow the deficit to 4-3 before Vigneault’s team somehow hung on.

Why did the third period become so lopsided? Because the Capitals woke to the realization of what it would mean to return to New York for Game 7 — everything to the Rangers. The Caps had the advantage of a thundering crowd that Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle acknowledged was impressively deafening with a “Let’s Go Caps” chant in the third.

Washington had the Rangers where it wanted them, but Lundqvist took the Caps season from them with the help of goals from Chris Kreider (two), Rick Nash and Dan Boyle.

“We’re a tough out,” Staal said Monday.

There is no denying it, but as in the last series, Lundqvist is going to need some help, too.

He has allowed just three goals in the last two games but only after some deep “soul-searching” helped him overcome surrendering 12 goals combined in Games 2 and 3. He needs early support on Tuesday. The Rangers, who looked discouraged in Sunday’s shutout at the Garden, need to score early to relax.

For whatever reason, despite significant offensive-zone time in Game 5, many of their best players were not sufficiently involved, particularly top forwards Derick Brassard and Rick Nash. Kevin Hayes’ line totaled just three shots. Players were declining the opportunity to take the puck to the net, and even Vigenault admitted Monday that he is “not sure why.”

“We just need to bring it,” left wing Carl Hagelin said.

One player is definitely going to bring it: Lundqvist is 14-3 with a 1.39 goals against average (GAA) in his last 17 elimination games, 8-1 with a 1.31 GAA in his last nine, and 6-0 in his last six appearances in a Game 6 or 7 with a 1.13 goals against.

Still, who knows whether that will be enough to bring it home?

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