Marc Staal wore his New York Rangers hat pulled down so low it was hard to see his eyes. Henrik Lundqvist’s peepers were almost feral in their stunned desperation. A “pissed off” Rick Nash lamented that this had been “our best chance to get a championship, and we lost.” But his quiet words were mostly drowned out by Martin St. Louis pulling tape off his equipment at an adjacent Madison Square Garden locker — the slow rip of an endless Band-Aid, the sound of a season unraveling.
One night later and about 3,000 miles away, a similar scene played out in Anaheim. Patrick Maroon sat in one corner of the Ducks locker room with an empty expression and a bushy playoff beard. The door to a players’ lounge swung open every now and then, revealing Ryan Kesler staring at nothing, fingers interlocked behind wet hair. Cam Fowler, camera lights trained on his face, blinked back tiny ocean swells of regret.
In a pair of conference final seventh games that determined which teams would sally forth to this week’s Stanley Cup final and which would slog through the swamps of hindsight and second-guessing, both home teams lost, and lost badly. The Rangers fell 2-0 to the Lightning in front of a grim, moneyed crowd, while the Ducks lost 5-3 in a building overwhelmed by swaggering Blackhawks fans.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. With the NBA playoffs on a weeklong hiatus and the NHL boasting Game 7s in both conference finals for just the second time in league history — on Friday and Saturday nights, no less — excitement was cresting in both cities. In New York, a Rangerstown flag rippled behind a fire truck zooming down Ninth Avenue. A man stood in line for face paint at a pregame fan fest, then presented the back of his bald head as the blank canvas for a Rangers shield once he got to the front.
Anaheim wasn’t much different. On Saturday morning, small orange flags flew from Prius windows on the freeway. Two hours before puck drop, a woman in a Ducks jersey at Rubio’s, a taco joint near Honda Center, asked an employee if she could get a different order number placard for her table. “Oh, wait, never mind,” she said, examining it more closely. “It says 38, not 88. I thought you’d given us Patrick Kane’s number! There’s only so much we can take!”
Ultimately, though, both host teams performed like children who are so damn charming until they’re saddled with an overeager audience — Come on! Sing that cute song you always do! — and can do nothing but freeze and wilt. The Rangers scored 17 goals in two wins and an overtime loss down in Tampa, but in Games 5 and 7 at Madison Square Garden managed exactly none. Three of the Ducks’ four previous playoff losses didn’t come until overtime, but on Saturday night it took just one period for the game to feel like it was over.
“I hate to say it, but I’m getting older and the window might be closing,” lamented Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi on Friday night, giving WFAN callers fodder for a summer’s worth of angst. “I’m not telling you that [the Blackhawks] are a better team than us,” said Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf, who has been knocked out of the playoffs in a Game 7 at home for three straight years. “I’m telling you that they played better than us tonight. They played good enough to win.”
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With two off days leading into Friday’s contest, Tampa Bay had lots of time to be asked about the Rangers’ intimidating record — specifically, Lundqvist’s — in Game 7s at MSG. New York had won six straight, and its goalie’s save percentage and goals-against average were downright gaudy in that span. But throughout the Eastern Conference finals, the Lightning consistently refused to be awestruck. Early on, they spoke of the need to harsh the mellow of Lundqvist’s trippy aura, and then they did, scoring 12 combined goals in Games 2 and 3. By the time they reached Friday morning, that attitude had only hardened.
“I respect what the Rangers have done in their elimination games, or whatever you call them,” coach Jon Cooper said. “Well, against us — we’re 0-0.” Steven Stamkos, who became captain of the Lightning last year when the team traded lifer Martin St. Louis to New York, praised Lundqvist to a point. “But he’s never played the Tampa Bay Lightning in a Game 7 before,” he said.
And while the Lightning may have lacked the longer-term experience of the Rangers, they had amassed some very recent — and very relevant — résumé-worthy playoff accomplishments themselves. Facing elimination by the Red Wings in the first round, the Lightning entered hostile territory and tied the series with a 5-2 win in Game 6, then outlasted the Wings in a tense Game 7 to advance. And their two wins at MSG were good for more than just internal confidence and coaching pep talks — they had proved the Lightning’s might to increasingly nervous New York fans.
You could feel that anxiety in the stands. “This is just like Game 5,” a man with a raspy New York accent wailed between the second and third periods Friday night. Another New York supporter steadied himself miserably against a wall under a “Draft Beer” sign, his head in his hands. “Your hair’s a little grayer than before,” his buddy said. “Oh, it’s so much grayer,” he replied, forlornly going to order two more beers before last call. The score at this point was 0-0.
So when Alex Killorn scored about two minutes into the third period on a backhand that slipped softly through traffic and Lundqvist’s legs, the arena was as quiet as a white-noise machine. It really did feel like Game 5: no margin for error, no support for Lundqvist, and definitely zero joy in Mudville.
In a perverse way, Ondrej Palat’s goal nine minutes later was almost a relief — it would have felt wrong for this series to hinge so heavily on that first score. A dynamic Tyler Johnson pass to a streaking Palat, on the other hand? That was the kind of laser beam sequence that had defined this Eastern Conference final all along.
The guys on the Lightning bench jumped up and down like schoolkids after the second goal, but they quickly stopped and acted stoic. As the clock and the season ticked away, Lundqvist slumped over on the Rangers bench. But it was Cooper’s face during the final 10 seconds that betrayed so much. Earlier that morning, the second-year NHL coach had dismissed Alain Vigneault’s notion that this was just one more game in a long season of them.
“I don’t think it’s just another game,” he said. “This is Game 7. I’m not going to sit here and hide this from our guys, saying, ‘Oh, fellas, this is one of 103 or 104 or whatever we’re playing.’” Now, he made it exactly clear how important this game was. As the seconds slipped off the clock, he broke into a wide and giddy grin.
It was never all that quiet at Honda Center, not even after the Chicago Blackhawks took an early 2-0 lead. “Our house, our team,” read a big arched sign above the arena’s main entrance — but even before the puck dropped, you suspected that wasn’t the case. The parking lot was teeming with Blackhawks fans who traveled to the game in their distinctive red jerseys, with a few requisite white “Griswold” sweaters here and there.
Both the Ducks and the Blackhawks were sent home last season with Game 7 losses to the eventual Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings. “It’s a long process,” said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville of the road to recovering from that kind of blow. “There were a lot of bumps and curves and challenges.” The Western Conference final had been full of all three for the Blackhawks, from triple-overtime games to a battered defensive corps to an Anaheim team so physically punishing that Kesler bragged, after Game 4, that “no human can withstand that many hits.”
But Chicago did withstand it, and won Game 6 at home, 5-2, to force the seventh game. Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said that with the stakes at their highest, it would be the highest-level players who would step up. “Everybody that’s a really top-notch player wants it on their shoulders,” he said Saturday morning. “They want to be the difference-makers on both teams.”
On Saturday night, that player turned out to be Jonathan Toews. It’s scary to remember that the Chicago captain is only 27; he has the gravitas and the trophy case of a player a decade his senior. Just two and a half minutes into the first period, he buried a rebound to give the Hawks an early lead. On a power play less than 10 minutes later, he netted a long snap shot to go up 2-0.
With the way this series had gone, a 2-0 lead didn’t feel entirely safe; after all, the Ducks had scored three goals in 37 seconds in Game 4. But bounces that had gone Anaheim’s way suddenly evaporated; chances by Maroon and Corey Perry late in the first were shut down by Corey Crawford. Shortly into the second period, Brandon Saad found himself inexplicably all alone at one side of the crease, and he buried a pass from Kane for the 3-0 lead. The dagger came when a puck deflected off Marian Hossa’s skate and into the net, with officials determining after a review that there wasn’t a distinct enough kicking motion to call back the 4-0 goal.
Kesler scored with under two minutes left in the second period to give Anaheim a bit of hope, and despite the 4-1 deficit, Ducks fans didn’t seem nearly as despondent as expected on a lap around the concourse during intermission. But Chicago fans were ruling the roost: Let’s go Hawks chants were everywhere; one man unfurled a huge Blackhawks banner and posed for a photo with about a dozen supporters of the visiting team; and a drunken idiot sidled up to a cop and slurred “Blackhawks lives matter,” then repeated the mal mot for effect in case he had not been heard. (The officer, to his great credit, just rolled his eyes.)
Perry’s goal midway through the third made it 4-2 and introduced the possibility of an all-time comeback, but a sequence shortly after sealed the game. Fowler passed up a good shot at the point, Hossa took away the puck, Fowler panic-tripped him, and Brent Seabrook scored on the resulting power play. “I made a couple plays I wish I could’ve had back,” Fowler said afterward. “It’s miserable, an awful feeling.”
In the hallway outside the visitor’s locker room at Madison Square Garden, two men embraced. One had on a well-tailored suit and a newly minted conference champions hat; the other was Charles Barkley. “We’re gonna have a hell of a party,” the Lightning executive said to the NBA legend, who replied “Yeah we are!” and went off to find and congratulate his buddy Cooper, whom he’d met during a road trip in L.A. last season.
Inside the locker room, in front of a whiteboard in the shape of an ice rink upon which someone had scrawled “Just win baby,” a smiley Stamkos said that “for whatever reason, that was probably the most calm Game 7 I’ve ever played in.” Standing nearby, the 5-foot-9 Johnson wore a conference champions T-shirt that still had a hologram sticker near the collar and hung down to mid-thigh. Palat finished giving interviews and then slung his overstuffed hockey bag onto his shoulder and sauntered out into the hall. The Lightning had gone big, and now it was time to go home.
The talk surrounding the Rangers (and, to an extent, the Ducks) had been about championship windows closing. But for the Lightning, whose roster had the youngest average age of the remaining playoff teams, it’s all cross breezes and fresh air. “You shine the light bright on our guys,” Cooper said, “and they’ll just put on sunglasses and walk right through it.”
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, have treated the playoffs like they’re some high school Romeo with a ladder. This is the third Stanley Cup final appearance they’ve ascended to since 2010. Their locker room had an excited if workmanlike air: This was how things should be, how things should have been last year.
Kane shrugged off questions about his early return from a broken clavicle, not allowing anyone to make it into too big of a deal. Brad Richards, now 8-0 in Game 7s, acknowledged it would be cool to play his former squad — a team he won a Cup and a Conn Smythe with in 2004 — in the final. “It’s going to be special,” he said. “But I want to win one. We’ll worry about friendships later.”
For Tampa Bay and Chicago, this will be a final featuring fast skating, shifty passing, and a marked departure from the bigger-grittier-stronger mentality made trendy by teams like the Kings and Bruins over the past few years. For New York and Anaheim, it will be painful to even think about, rock salt in a gaping wound, the sting of having to head back down to base camp when the summit is just in sight.
Cleaning crews had yet to perform their nightly wizardry outside Madison Square Garden in the wee hours of Saturday morning, and blue and red litter remained scattered everywhere, dozens of would-be celebrations all curdled into trash. But outside Honda Center on that breezy West Coast Saturday evening, the ugly traces of civilization were mostly cleared up as soon as the game let out. The spotlessness somehow felt more bleak: It was as if nothing had ever happened inside that building, on that night or all the others. How quickly it could all be swept away.
This piece originally misstated the nature of Patrick Kane’s injury this season. He suffered a broken clavicle, not a separated shoulder.