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Expect the unexpected as Rangers prepare for another Game 7

Anton Stralman #6 of the Tampa Bay Lightning

Anton Stralman #6 of the Tampa Bay Lightning passes the puck against Jesper Fast #19 of the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 26, 2015 in Tampa, Fla. Credit: Getty Images / Brian Blanco

Game 7 at the Garden, where the Rangers never lose Game 7s? With Henrik Lundqvist back in form? And with the No. 1 line suddenly a scoring machine?

Look out Stanley Cup Final, because the Blueshirts are a cinch for a return visit, their first in consecutive seasons since 1932 and '33.

Right? Maybe, but let's pause for a moment.

Because as the players and coaches themselves have pointed out repeatedly, there are only two things this all-over-the-map Eastern Conference finals has lacked: rhyme and reason.

After Game 1, the Rangers' defense was impenetrable. After Game 3, their goalie was inconsolable.

After Game 4, their offense was invincible. After Game 5, it was invisible. After Game 6, well, see Game 4.

To review, the Rangers' goal tallies thus far have gone like this: 2, 2, 5, 5, 0, 7. The Lightning: 1, 6, 6, 1, 2, 3.

"I don't think anyone would have expected these scores," Tampa Bay's Alex Killorn said on a conference call Wednesday. "It's tough to kind of explain." (Even for a guy who played at Harvard.)

There has been no evident pattern, no consistent style of play, no key player on either team who has been all good or all bad, which makes predicting Game 7 a matter better suited to a coin flip than serious analysis.

It's true that the Rangers are an enviable 15-3 in elimination games since 2012, but that means they did lose one in each season. Otherwise, they'd have three Cups to show for their efforts.

Also, this: the Lightning has outscored the Rangers, 8-2, in its past two games at the Garden and is 4-1 overall there this season, outscoring the home team, 20-8.

And about that 7-0 home record in Game 7s: "I guess that means they're due to lose one, right?" Killorn cracked.

Having said all that, would it be wise to bet the college fund against the been-there, done-that Rangers at the World's Most Famous Arena facing a young team with a rattled goal-tender, some sort of flu-like bug running through the locker room and a mediocre road record?

Heck, no. Just sayin' here that taking anything for granted would be ignoring what we have seen in this series so far.

The closest thing to a given is Lundqvist, who has won six consecutive Game 7s. As he gave the honorary Broadway Hat to the goalie Tuesday, Rick Nash said, "We've got to keep it with the trend and go to our leader for Game 7: Hankie."

A few minutes later, after reporters were allowed in, Lund-qvist said this about Game 7: "It's a lot of adrenaline and pressure and you're nervous going into these games, but you have to enjoy it. Everything on the line again, playing in front of your fans.

"I always say there's no better feeling than to win a big game at home. They've been playing well in our building so we have to go home now and regroup and really focus on the task."

Before boarding the plane home from Tampa Wednesday, Derick Brassard said he has no more idea what to expect Friday than anyone else.

"Both teams have had their moments," he said. "It's been back and forth, and we're facing a really good team."

Nash said of the yo-yoing series, "hopefully that trend ends and we can keep the momentum from last game, but I would expect a tight game. It seems like all Game 7s are pretty tight, pretty defensive and tight checking."

True enough. The last four Game 7s at MSG -- and five of the last six -- have ended in 2-1 Rangers victories.

Both teams were off Wednesday but will be back on the ice Thursday. The Lightning will practice in Florida before doing the last thing they wanted to do: Get on a plane back to New York. What might they find here? Who knows?

Said Lightning coach Jon Cooper: "The first six games of this series, when you really think about it, do they really mean anything? They really don't. It's come down to a one-game series. Game 7 is the only one that matters."


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