By Sean Hartnett
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Can a Bishop defeat a King?
We're not talking about chess here, folks. Ben Bishop and Henrik Lundqvist will square off under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden in Friday night's Eastern Conference championship-deciding Game 7, with the hope of sending their team to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.
Lundqvist has been in this situation before. He's one win away from guiding the Rangers to a second consecutive berth in the finals.
The Rangers have always had something unique in Lundqvist. Few goalies around the league can be described as a dressing-room leader. Goalies tend to be a quirky bunch. Like every goalie, Lundqvist has his superstitions. Before he takes the ice each period, he taps the wall with his stick – once before the first period, twice before the second period and three times before the third period.
So, in many ways Lundqvist is just like every NHL goaltender. Except that he isn't. He's a captain without a 'C' stitched on his jersey. (League rules don't allow goaltenders to serve as on-ice captains due to the distance they would travel to have discussions with referees and coaches.)
Even though there isn't a letter above Lundqvist's heart, he is the emotional leader of this team. When he speaks, every teammate drops what they're doing and pays full attention.
"His comments, as we talked about last night, kind of carries through our whole team," winger Rick Nash said. "We're lucky to have a goalie like that, and he's the leader of our team, so I'm sure he'll step up."
As Nash mentioned, Lundqvist's desire has a trickle-down effect on teammates. They see the passion in his eyes. It forces the Rangers to raise their game. Playing in front of the league's most talented and most determined goaltender gives the Blueshirts an important intangible.
"It's a huge sense of confidence," Nash said.
King Henrik is adored by the Garden faithful for his magnificent big-game performances. He's a career 6-1 in Game 7s.
In his past 18 elimination games, Lundqvist is 15-3 with a 1.47 goals-against average, a .954 save percentage and two shutouts. Since the start of the 2014 playoffs, he's 9-1 in elimination games.
The Lightning know exactly the challenge they will face Friday with Lundqvist standing between them as the final hurdle in their quest to earn the Prince of Wales Trophy.
"We know we're going to get the best out of Lundqvist, like he always does in Game 7s," Tampa winger Alex Killorn said. "But we think if we play the way we did in Game 5, I think we'll put ourselves in a good situation."
LIGHTNING EXPECT STRONG-MINDED BISHOP TO BOUNCE BACK
Questions surround Bishop after he allowed five goals in three of the past four games. His series save percentage has fallen to a lowly .888.
Bishop was hung out to dry by turnover-prone teammates in Game 6. After the Rangers stormed the net, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper mercifully sent in backup Andrei Vasilevskiy at 7:14 of the third period.
Cooper did not assign blame to Bishop for Tampa's 7-3 defeat on Tuesday.
"When you have to get yourself up every single second day, that can be pretty trying on a starting goaltender," Cooper said. "I think he seemed to have past that test, because in every series we've gone, the kid seems to have upped his game. I know we look here and say, well, he gave up five (on Tuesday). I don't think any of us on this call could sit here and say Ben was the big reason we gave up the five. It was a lot of the five guys ahead of him. He's the last line of defense. He did everything he could to keep the puck out of the net. It was our five guys in front of him that didn't help him out."
Cooper has complete faith in Bishop bouncing back because of his strong makeup.
"The one thing about him is, he's a mentally tough kid," Cooper said. "When he's been challenged, he's responded."
Bishop has only played in one career Game 7, pitching a shutout in the first round to propel the Bolts past the Detroit Red Wings.
"He's going to respond big in Game 7," Killorn said. "He's done that all year. I don't think you can put the blame for any of those (Game 6) goals on him. It's just kind of the way the game worked out."
Despite their belief, Bishop remains a big question mark. There are reservations not just about his mentality, but also his energy while having an increased workload on his back.
Now Bishop faces a challenge unlike any other in his career – the task of somehow outdueling Game 7 master Henrik Lundqvist.
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