NEW YORK — They are a little bit like the unpredictable guest at a dinner party. When the moment of truth arrives, you’re never quite sure what the Tampa Bay Lightning are going to do.
Part of it comes down to youth and the semester’s worth of learning experiences they’ve crammed into the last couple weeks. But it’s also about where they come from — who they are — and there’s no question an underdog’s spirit permeates in that dressing room.
The Lightning are unafraid to take a big swing at you. They just aren’t going to land them all.
Henrik Lundqvist referred to it as a “high-risk, sometimes high-reward” style after New York pushed the Eastern Conference final to Game 7 with a turnover-fuelled 7-3 road win on Wednesday night.
“They can score, but they can also make mistakes,” The King noted.
The Rangers, by contrast, are business casual. Composed, experienced and well inside the margins.
They are built to play with the kind of risk management that maximizes the chance for success in a coin-flip winner-take-all game like the one the two teams will contest at Madison Square Garden on Friday night.
The collision of these approaches for the final time on Broadway makes Game 7 appointment viewing for hockey fans. Sure, the Lightning might end up locking things down — as they did here during a Game 5 win — but there’s also chance it could turn into a goalfest.
There was certainly no signs of a change in attitude after the Lightning’s practice at Amalie Arena on Thursday morning. A clutch of players debated dinner plans in one corner of the dressing room while J.T. Brown pleaded with Tyler Johnson to wrap up his media interviews and get changed.
Brown, as it turns out, was concerned that they were running out of time to grab smoothies before catching a 1 p.m. flight to New York.
The Lightning might as well have been heading out for the first road trip of the season rather than the 20th. After arriving in Manhattan, coach Jon Cooper told reporters there would be no need for an emotional pre-game speech.
“I think it’s been a funny playoffs with this team, and we’ve strung together some beauties — both beautiful and beauties — if you know what I mean,” said Cooper. “But they’ve always found a way.”
For Johnson, the league leader with 12 playoff goals, this is both new and familiar. The 24-year-old’s resume includes a Memorial Cup and Calder Cup so he’s no stranger to long playoff runs.
He figures the lake won’t be warm enough yet at his off-season home in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, and sees no point in getting back there any time soon.
“It’s going to come down to whatever team wants to win it more,” said Johnson.
Offensively, the Lightning have been carried almost entirely by their top two forward lines. The Johnson and Steven Stamkos trios have accounted for an amazing 18 of 19 goals in this series — leaving a pretty obvious gameplan for New York.
The idea of high-risk, high-reward comes from the fact that both Johnson and Stamkos made errors that led to goals against Tampa in Game 6. Cooper figures his players were “pressing” at home and will be a little less risky on the road.
“They’ve been playing really well in our building,” said Lundqvist. “You have to respect that. They’re a really good team, so we have to play our best.”
The Rangers will have the confidence of knowing they can manage the considerable mental challenge that lies ahead. That’s what their previous experience buys them.
For Tampa this is all about opportunity.
Newcomers to elite status in the NHL, they can book the trip of a lifetime with one more victory. A berth in the Stanley Cup final is on the line.
“It’s just another hockey game,” said defenceman Anton Stralman, who has been on the winning side in six previous Game 7s. “I don’t think you have to do anything to really amp yourself up. It kind of takes care of itself. You just step on the ice and kind of suck in the atmosphere a little bit and try to enjoy it, and have some fun with it.”
The Lightning are no strangers to a good time. They scored more goals than any other NHL team this year and negotiated a tightrope by surviving two must-win games just to get past Detroit in the first round.
Now it’s May 28 and they have at least one more game left on the schedule.
“Our main objective is to be able to compete and play hard for 60 minutes and let the chips fall where they may,” said Johnson.
A gambler’s attitude. Perfect for a moment like this one.