At a stall inside the visitors dressing room at Amalie Arena, Henrik Lundqvist was the picture of both exhaustion and happiness. For more than 50 minutes, he had put on the kind of goaltending display that his name has become synonymous with, underscored by an outrageous glove save on Steven Stamkos early in the match.
Only a flurry of goals late in the proceedings turned what should have been another Picasso masterpiece into something resembling a Jackson Pollock work. Regardless, Lundqvist and the Rangers will take the result--and the Lightning--back to Madison Square Garden for one more winner-take-all game Friday (8 p.m., NBCSN).
"The best feeling," Lundqvist told reporters after the Rangers staved off elimination for the fourth time this postseason. "It's really the best. Even though there's a lot of adrenaline and pressure and you're nervous going into these games you have to enjoy them. I've always said there's nothing better than having a big game in your building, and now we have that."
Indeed, the Garden will play host to Game 7 of an Eastern Conference Final that has become predictably unpredictable. Over the fortnight in which the Lightning and Rangers have gone head-to-head, stick-to-stick, cross check-to-cross check, the lone constant has been someone on either side has taken centerstage. Early it was Dominic Moore and then Tampa's Triplets line. In Game 4, it was Lundqvist, Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis. Then it was Stamkos and Ben Bishop. Tuesday it was Lundqvist and Derick Brassard, who merely recorded a hat trick and two assists.
Brassard's hat trick was the first for a Ranger in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since Michael Nylander in Game 3 of the 2007 Eastern Conference quarterfinal against Atlanta, a series the Rangers swept. Moreover, it was the first hat trick for a Ranger when his team was in a win-or-the-season-is-over game since a fellow by the name of Mark Messier in Game 6 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Final.
So who will be the player who drags his team over the finish line? Who knows?
At this point, the series has become an oddly beautiful test of wills. Yes, the Western Conference Final might be challenging the epochal Devils-Rangers 1994 Eastern Conference Final for the title Best of All Time, but this Eastern Conference Final has not lacked for dramatics.
And on Friday night, on the biggest stage, the Lightning and Rangers will get to play in team sports' ultimate game.
"I expected our group to get ready, prepare themselves and give ourselves a chance to win this game, and I think that's what our group did," Alain Vigneault said. "We came out, we capitalized early on our chances. And after that, our goaltender was asked to make some big saves, which he did.
"In the third period, with our season on the line, we probably played our best period of this series so far. So we wanted a chance, and we got a chance.
"We've got a chance at a Game 7."