By Steve Silverman
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Backs placed firmly against the wall, the New York Rangers simply played their best game of the season when it mattered most.READ MORE: Wild Roll To Win Against Devils
That should not have surprised anyone, because this is a team that understands how to play when there is no margin left for error. The Rangers rolled a lucky seven on the Tampa Bay Lightning and came away with a series-tying 7-3 victory. The team that was beaten to nearly every loose puck and was easily discouraged in their uninspiring Game 5 loss at the Garden had turned into ferocious tigers.
The Rangers knew they had been passive in Game 5, and that could not happen again in Game 6. Alain Vigneault knew it, but so did Derick Brassard, J.T. Miller and Rick Nash.
Those three had a game for the ages as they combined for 13 points. They were led by Brassard, who finished the night with three goals and two assists, while Miller and Nash each had a goal and three assists.
It may have looked easy in the box score, but it was anything but. The Rangers got the great start they were looking for when Brassard and Keith Yandle scored in the first period to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead that quieted down a Tampa crowd ready to celebrate an Eastern Conference championship.
The crowd and the Lightning got a little bit of life when Ryan Callahan scored on a breakaway toward the end of the period. The Rangers had a lot to think about; Tampa Bay’s speed was starting to take effect.
The Lightning pushed hard in the second period and had a boatload of Grade-A chances. The best of those came off the stick of slickster Tyler Johnson, but Henrik Lundqvist was up to the task.
Remember the goaltender who gave up six goals apiece in Games 2 and 3? That imposter has been replaced by the real Hank. The doubts and shaky goals have been put aside by the indomitable goaltender who has earned a reputation as the best in the league.
He may not have shut out the Lightning, but he shut them down when they still had a chance to get back in the game.
The Rangers looked like they were hanging on at the end of the second period, but they came out on fire in the third and wrote a new chapter on how to play with a lead. They quickly put the game out of reach with goals by Miller, James Sheppard and Brassard, and that allowed Vigneault and Rangers fans to go into seventh-game mode since Game 6 had been wrapped up nicely.READ MORE: DeRozan, LaVine Help Bulls Hang On To Beat Knicks
This game was not just about the Brassard line going wild. Nor was it about excellent work by Lundqvist in the first and second periods.
The Rangers were in danger of getting taken apart in this series early on by Tampa Bay’s speed and skill. Tyler Johnson, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn were overwhelming New York’s defensive schemes.
They were getting wide open in the offensive zone and firing shots at the Rangers’ net without any impediment. Forwards were letting Tampa Bay’s defensemen cruise into comfortable shooting and passing positions, while the Rangers’ defense couldn’t handle the quickness of Tampa Bay.
That started to turn around in Game 4, and even though the Rangers got blanked in Game 5, the Lightning were no longer running wild. The defense, led by Dan Girardi and Keith Yandle, turned the series in the Rangers’ favor.
Kucherov may have scored twice in Game 6 for the Lightning, but that was after the Rangers had blitzed them in the third period and put the game away.
Momentum may look like it favors the Rangers after that huge win on the road, but it is a fickle ally. The game plan is what favors Vigneault’s team.
They have slowed Tampa Bay’s offense as this series has moved along, and that’s what will win this series for them on Friday. The Rangers are not likely to come up with another seven-spot, but they should be able to dent shaky goaltender Ben Bishop.
When the Lightning try to respond, the Rangers’ defense has figured out how to take away time and space from the opposing sharpshooters. Perhaps Stamkos will score a goal, and maybe Killorn or Johnson.
But that’s where it will end.
The Rangers understand what it takes to play in and win Game 7. Lundqvist certainly has the track record (6-1, 0.97 goals-against average in Game 7s), but the Blueshirts won’t have to look to their stellar goalie to bail them out.MORE NEWS: Karlsson Scores In OT To Give Sharks Win Over Islanders
The Rangers have figured out how to defend against the Lightning, and they are the better team. That’s why they will get a second consecutive chance to play in the Stanley Cup Final.