Anton Stralman and Jesper Fast (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
Anton Stralman is 6-0 in his career in Game 7s, with all of those wins coming with the New York Rangers. Stralman and his teammates are going to have to be better than they were in Game 6 against the Rangers if they want to extend that undefeated streak.
Faced with the biggest game and the most crucial test of his NHL coaching career, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper channeled his inner philosopher when he contemplated the enormity of the task facing his team in Game 7 Friday night.
“It’s like, the first six games of this series, when you think about it, do they really mean anything?” Cooper asked on a media conference call Wednesday afternoon. “They really don’t. It’s come down to a one-game series and Game 7 is really the only one that matters.”
Cooper did not have to be reminded the Rangers are 7-0 all-time in Game 7s on home ice, or maybe he did. He did not, however, need a refresher course on how dominant Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is in Game 7s. For those who do, Lundqvist is 6-1 in those games, with six straight victories and a goals-against average of 0.97. He has not allowed more than a goal in any of those games.
Gulp. After their demoralizing loss on home ice in Game 6, the Lightning went back to the age-old crutch of saying that if someone told them at the start of the season that they’d be playing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, they would have taken that. What would have been helpful for them is if that same person would have cautioned that letting up in a game following a big one is not a very good playoff recipe. That is the sign of a young team that is still finding its way and learning to win in the playoffs. But the downside of having a group like that is they’re not burdened by externals, such as, say the fact that the Rangers have never, ever, ever lost a Game 7 on home ice.
“Our group is so young I’m not even sure they read (media reports) because they’re too busy playing video games,” Cooper said. “To me and to our team, their 7-0 record or whatever it is, it hasn’t happened against us. I think maybe for the Rangers, you can hang your hat on that and have a little confidence to say, ‘We’ve done this in the past and we can do it again.’ And you’re going to look at our team and say, ‘We don’t care. We haven’t been a part of that history, so it doesn’t affect us.’ It’s an impressive feat to see what they’ve done, but they haven’t done it against our group.”
Cooper can take some solace in the fact that the Lightning has a young, confident group that has responded well to pressure situations, whether it was going into Detroit to win Game 6 to force a Game 7 in Round 1 or snuffing out the Montreal Canadiens rally in the second round. And the Lighting has won two of three road games in each of their playoff series this season.
The Rangers could put out a couple of lines of players who have had enormous amounts of success in Game 7s. All told, Ryan McDonagh, Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, Rick Nash and Derick Brassard have never experienced losing a Game 7 in their careers. But Cooper also has Anton Stralman, who is 6-0, and Brian Boyle, who is 5-0, players who both racked up their Game 7 success with the team they’ll be facing Friday night.
Stralman, who struggled defensively along with defense partner Victor Hedman in Game 6 against the Rangers, was singled out by Cooper as a player who has been integral to Tampa’s success this season. He called Stralman the Rangers “hidden MVP” through their playoff run last season and said much of the success Hedman has experienced this season has been due to playing with the veteran Stralman.
“Having that confidence that we can throw him over the boards every second shift is just a luxury for us,” Cooper said. “When it was July and we were looking at who we were going to bring in…who were the winners? Who are the guys who have been there before and found a way and at the top of that list was Anton Stralman. When we were fortunate enough to ink him, I knew that was a turn for our team. I think the emergence of Victor Hedman, a lot of that can be put with being paired with Anton Stralman. And that pair, to me, is as good as any pair in the league.”
They will have to be all that and more, and Lightning goalie Ben Bishop will have to match Lundqvist save-for-save for Tampa Bay to have a chance to play in the Stanley Cup final.