Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City, New York
When: 8 PM EDT
Media: NBC Sports Net (cable) | 970 AM WFLA (radio) | Twitter Live Stream
Opponent Coverage: Blueshirt Banter, Ranger Pundit, Doinow.com
You may have heard, and some have called it a vicious lie, but there's a hockey game tonight. This game happens to be the last game of the season between Eastern Conference teams. Seriously! It's not a myth, rumor, or lie! Tonight will be the end of competition between Eastern Conference teams on an in-game level. There will be off-ice shenanigans and innuendo, rumors, scuttlebutt, jockeying and the like off-ice as teams do the draft, trade and free agency thing over the summer but that's preparation for the 2015-16 NHL season and beyond; next season.
The Prince of Wales Trophy will be bestowed upon tonight's winner (don't you dare touch that thing, inevitable victor!) and they will ascend to the Stanley Cup Finals to take on whoever wins Saturday's contest between the Anaheim Ducks and the Chicago Blackhawks.
It's been a good series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers though, hasn't it? It's had inconsistent-as-hell, yet edge-of-your-seat play at times. It's also featured some of the newer stars of the NHL showcasing themselves in a stellar fashion (Tyler Johnson and his knock-out brothers, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov). There have been lots of up and down moments for both clubs with tension and excitement that sports in general bring to us at their best. Please don't cop-out in a homer fashion here and say it'll only be a good series if the Bolts win it; that sullies everything and makes it look like you can't enjoy the sport unless the team you root for wins. It has been a good series. I don't have a time machine and can't tell you if people will be referencing these games and this series in years to come, but it's been a hockey series where many of the thrills and drawbacks of the sport have showed up.
It's disappointing that the media-market-matters narrative has slipped in at times by way of lack-of-calls or weak penalties (and prep for a free-wheeling affair tonight where officials attempt to not interfere by actually enforcing rules). The drawback of the sport is officiating all-too-often and not being able to trust the Wheel of Justice to show an even, hand of authority.
The Lightning franchise has been here twice before - a decisive game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals. The club is 1-1 in those games, with the last game being in 2011 in Boston. The Bruins won that game 1-0 by way of a Nathan Horton goal... Clean goal, but a controversial goal in that inconsistency by the Wheel of Justice allowed Horton to play after going after a fan after a Game 6 loss in Tampa, an act that was declared unforgivable in a different incident in the past. That's a story unto itself and would be a shame if something like that came into play tonight to mar the series result.
And like I said yesterday, though, everything before tonight is past-tense. Putting focus back on game 7, with the inconsistent play of both goalies you can't suggest one will be better than the other at this point. Tight games turned into blowouts the next time out. High scoring affairs turn into shutouts. No matter what media nit-picks are out there or fan musings, the status for the goalies tonight is Henrik Lundqvist starts for the Rangers and Ben Bishop starts for the Lightning. Both netminders have the faith and confidence of their coaches and GMs.
Tonight will be a put-it-all-out-there game as there's nothing beyond it - only the moment. From the Bolts perspective, it'd likely be better if shots-on-goal amounted to an effort beyond just shooting; a degree of deception (read: passing) that throws off Lundqvist. While that's part of the way the Lightning have found success against Lundqvist - a tandem or trio getting Lundqvist to commit to fending off one attacker; creating wide opportunity from a different angle. Some fans love the hard-working, in-the-cease goals but that's where Lundqvist has been strongest; tending his yard most efficiently. They'd likely be better off with the outside or just-outside shots (counterpoint: I said nothing before tonight matters, so as far as we know that's how tonight could be won - the garbage goal).
There are other little things to talk about: player statuses for starters. Erik Erlendsson believes Cedric Paquette returns to the Lightning lineup tonight. Another quirk that I can't even try to iron out is if that rumored illness; is it still affecting the roster or has it passed? Something unclear after practice reports if Lightning coach Jon Cooper goes 11 forwards / 7 defensemen again or returns to the traditional 12/6 roster split? That likely won't be settled until just before the game.
Other Game Coverage:
- Tampa Bay Lightning official team preview
- Full coverage on SB Nation
- Live stream of Tampa Bay Lightning coverage on Twitter