- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers are on the brink of returning to the Stanley Cup finals for the second consecutive season.
The one thing standing in their way is the Tampa Bay Lightning.
These two teams have battled hard in the Eastern Conference finals, and it comes down to Game 7 on Friday night (8 p.m. ET) at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers avoided elimination with a 7-3 win in Game 6 on Tuesday at Amalie Arena, and it’s not surprising this series will go the distance.
The Rangers improved to 15-3 in their past 18 playoff games when facing elimination, dating back to Game 6 of the 2012 quarterfinals against the Ottawa Senators. New York also improved to 43-0-1 this season when leading after two periods, including 7-0 in these postseason.
It’s been nearly impossible to predict the outcome of any of these games. It truly has been back and forth. When puck drops Friday, no matter the outcome, Game 7 will not disappoint.
“What you can predict is that two teams are going to go on the ice and battle and work extremely hard to try and win a game,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “You’ve got two highly skilled teams that both want to win.”
Both teams were off Wednesday. The Lightning stayed in Tampa for an extra day, while the Rangers returned home to New York. Vigneault’s message to his players Wednesday focused on getting the proper rest for what’s ahead.
“It’s Game 7. In this sport, it doesn’t get much better than this,” he said. “Today will be a day where we’re going to rest up a little bit, but starting tomorrow we’re going to focus on the elements that we need to do on the ice to have a good game. We’re going to narrow our players’ focus to exactly that, and that permits us to stay in the moment, go on the ice and execute. That’s what we’re going to try and do.”
The Rangers enter Friday’s game with a 7-0 all-time record in Game 7s at Madison Square Garden. It also helps that they have Henrik Lundqvist in net for such a situation.
“The Garden has been so great the last few years in the playoffs, and Game 7s are so exciting to play on that ice,” said Rangers’ Derek Stepan. “The fans seem to just absolutely light that building up. It’s a really cool experience and it makes for a great atmosphere. You play all year to get home-ice advantage and that’s what we’re able to do this year. Now we get ourselves in a Game 7 in front of our own fans.”
Rangers forward Rick Nash, who had one goal and three assists in Game 6, described playing in a Game 7 as something you dream about as a kid.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “You obviously want to win the series in four, but when it comes down to a Game 7, these are the things that you dream about and you pretend you’re playing hockey on the ice by yourself or road hockey when you were a kid. It’s just one of those experiences that’s tough to put into words.”
With a berth to the Stanley Cup finals on the line, an extra day of rest is welcomed at this point of the playoffs.
“It’s going to be good for our team just to have a chance today to not think about hockey, not go to the rink, and rest our bodies,” said Rangers forward Derick Brassard, who scored three goals and added two assists in Game 6. “Come Friday, it’s going to be fully energized with a lot of energy. Against Washington, we were pretty exhausted and pretty tired, and those two days really helped us to come out with a win.”
The Rangers are also hoping to bring home some offense; they scored 17 goals in three games this series at Amalie Arena. On home ice, the Rangers have been limited to four goals.
“I don’t know. That’s a good question,” Brassard said when asked why that is. “It should be the other way around, but we’re a pretty good road team. We show up to play every time on the road. It seems like we don’t have anyone to impress. Maybe at home we’re trying to impress our fans or we’re tying to impress people.
“We just have to show up Friday and play the same way and be confident. They’re going to be loud. The atmosphere’s going to be great and we just have to take those emotions and put it [to good use].”