TAMPA — Everything appears to have swung back in the Rangers’ favor now that they’ve staved off elimination for the 15th time in their last 18 do-or-die games, now that they have a winner-take-all matchup on Friday at Madison Square Garden, the building they’ve made a Game 7 fortress.
They’ve got the 7-0 record in Game 7s at MSG, the 10 straight wins in elimination games at home, and is the veteran team that has been down this road so many times against a younger Lightning team that desperately wanted to avoid getting back on a plane to New York.
And of course, they’ve got the King of Game 7, Henrik Lundqvist, in net while counterpart Ben Bishop’s confidence could be shaken after being pulled in the third period Tuesday. Lundqvist is 6-1 all-time in Game 7s and has won six straight. It also helps the Rangers’ cause that several Lightning players appeared to be sick this with, with Jon Cooper embracing the two-day break to get players healthy.
Everything suggests that the Rangers will win this Eastern Conference final and advance to the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1932-33, everything except coach Alain Vigneault’s mood at the team hotel Wednesday morning before the team prepared to fly home.
Vigneault’s demeanor was such that he knows the series is completely up for grabs, a Rangers victory Friday far from a sure thing. Though he’s 3-for-3 in Game 7s so far as Rangers coach, he knows all too well the pain of a Game 7 defeat, losing the final game of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final at home to the Bruins when he coached the Canucks.
It was evident Vigneault was in no mood to be crowned conference champs the moment he walked into a meeting room to speak with the scribes, one session earlier than usual. During such off-day availabilities, normally three players will speak with the coach going last. Yet after Derek Stepan and Rick Nash had done their duties, Vigneault walked in instead of Derick Brassard, who – the night earlier – scored his first career hat trick and had two assists in a 7-3 Game 6 win after his coach challenged him and Stepan earlier that morning to be better.
“Guy gets one good game and he’s late,” a cheeky Vigneault said of Brassard. Later when he walked out, Vigneault quipped, “Is Brass up yet?”
The Rangers celebrate their game winning overtime goal against the Capitals the series before in another Game 7.
As glad as he was for the brilliant top-line performance of Brassard, Nash and J.T. Miller Tuesday, Vigneault clearly wasn’t thrilled Brassard spilled the beans after the game about the coach’s pow wow with his top-two centers. He said he preferred that such conversations remain in-house while also trying to downplay its importance. “It wasn’t that big of a deal,” he said.
The Rangers headed home Wednesday to rest before a Thursday practice, when Vigneault plans on zeroing in on refining his game plan for Friday. He displayed a desire to keep the team focused and composed ahead of what will be an emotional affair. Friday will mark the deepest in the playoffs the Rangers have played a Game 7 since 1994, when they played a seven-game series in both the conference finals and the Cup Final.
“Starting (Thursday) we’re going to focus on the elements that we need to do on the ice to have a good game,” Vigneault said. “We’re going to narrow our players’ focus to exactly that. That permits us to stay in the moment, go on the ice and execute. And that’s what we’re going to try and do.”
The emotions that come with a Game 7 are wide-ranging. As Nash noted Wednesday, it’s a moment players imagine when they’re kids out alone on the ice or playing street hockey. It’s a fantasy fulfilled. Yet it is also nerve-wracking, from the anxiousness beginning to build at the morning skate, to the butterflies swirling during the national anthem, to the feeling during the game of not wanting to make that critical error. How the emotions are all channeled is crucial.
“It can be stressful but the reality is the game’s coming no matter what,” Nash said, “and you might as well turn that stress into energy and controlled emotions. So it’s a tough balance for sure.”
It helps to have a man as steady as Vigneault leading the way.
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