TAMPA, Fla. - So much has been made of the Rangers' ability to play their best hockey when backed up against a wall -- and with good reason.
The Lightning should be taking notes, and couldn't have better teachers than the Rangers, who have a 17-3 record in elimination games over the last four seasons after last night's 7-3 victory over Tampa Bay, which forced a Game 7 on Friday night at the Garden.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has a team of playoff novices, with only two players -- defenseman Victor Hedman and center Steven Stamkos -- remaining from their last team to reach a conference finals in 2011.
The Lightning were playing in their third straight Game 6, each under wildly different circumstances. In the opening round, they trailed Detroit 3-2, and Game 6 sparked them to a seven-game series win. In the next round, they led Montreal 3-0 only to see the Canadiens claw back with two wins, but Game 6 put them away.
It didn't go that way last night.
"It's weird," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said before the game. "We've advanced to Game 6 in different ways, one with our back against the wall having to win this game at home and going to a Game 7. The next one being up three, giving up two, and now having to come back on your heels a little bit; and in this one, tied series, we get the fifth one, and now we have a chance to knock them out. So we've kind of approached these, we've kind of lived these different battles."
The Rangers rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the Eastern semifinals against Washington, and it was a 4-3 win over the Capitals on the road in Game 6 that set up the clinching series win at home in Game 7.
Down 3-2 is where the Rangers and goalie Henrik Lundqvist thrive -- they came back from such deficits in the first round in 2012 and 2013, and from 3-1 in last year's semifinals. Their heroics continue.
"Not just Hank, our whole group," coach Alain Vigneault said before Game 6. "This is a team game and there is no doubt that as a group tonight that we've got to come up with our best game of the year."
Last night's game also featured the NHL's very best under the circumstances -- the Lightning led the NHL with 32 home wins, and the Rangers led the league with 28 road wins. Fittingly, Tampa Bay's two clinching wins in the playoffs have come at home; the Rangers have set themselves up for a third clinching home victory with last night's win.
"One thing I know, I don't take anything for granted," Cooper said. "Every game becomes our most important game of the year, and that's how we have to treat this. We can't just sit here and say we played a pretty good game in Game 5, that'll just carry us into a win tonight. If we don't play better than we did in Game 5, we won't win tonight."