Although they were up against the two-time champion Tampa Bay Lightning and needed seven games to advance through each of the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Rangers always had one trump card in their pocket: Fortress Madison Square Garden.
Even after losing two games in Tampa to allow Lightning to tie the Eastern Conference Finals, there was an unshakable sense of confidence in Rangerland going into Game 5. After all, the team was 8-1 at home in the playoffs, their only loss coming. in three overtime hours in the first game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
So when Lightning ended the spell with a 3-1 win at the Garden on Thursday night, it was a hammer blow. And all the more frustrating because Tampa’s key goals didn’t come entirely from the power trio of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, but also from an unlikely defender who took a few low-percentage shots.
The Rangers started the night on a promising note. Seemingly infused with the energy of their venerable arena, they’ve played from the initial showdown with an authority and toughness that Tampa lacked. The pace was fast, and the first period was free and without penalties.
Unsettling for the Rangers, who clearly had the advantage, it was also goalless. New York fired eight shots and Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy saved them all. His colleague Igor Shesterkin was called in to save just three. And that came from a Rangers team that had been beaten, 153-127, in their first four games.
Lightning sometimes at first looked less like the two-time champion and more like a team blown away by the occasion. Every time (and there were many) there was a showdown at the end of Lightning, there was a feeling that this would be the moment when the Rangers would finally break through.
But dominance doesn’t count unless you score a goal. The Rangers finally got theirs at 10:29 of the second period, not out of dominance but almost by chance. Defender Ryan Lindgren scored his first series point and second playoff goal through a speculative move from close to the boards that was perhaps intended for a deflection. Instead, he went in.
But if New York had hoped that drawing first blood would open up the game, it was wrong. A one-goal advantage is a thin cane, even in the Garden. Tampa Bay’s answer came at 5:34 pm on the second, and somehow it was even more unlikely.
Defender Mikhail Sergachev scored his first goal in the playoffs. It was also helpless: a high shot almost from the blue line that passed waist-high by at least three Rangers, as well as Lightning’s Corey Perry camped in the crease, then most importantly Shesterkin, who could do nothing.
In addition to leveling the score, the visitors debunked the prominence of the Rangers. After the second period, the difference in shots was over, and both goalkeepers made exactly 15 saves out of 16 shots.
In the frenetic third period, both sides failed to capitalize on breakups and opponents mistakes, and the tension led to some push-and-pull scrums as well.
At 1:50 to go, Tampa delivered the once-unlikely coup de grace when Sergachev, from inside the blue line, sent the puck through traffic and Palat swerved home. This sucked the life out of the raucous Garden faithful, who were already gearing up for one or more overtime, and essentially ended the game, although Tampa added an empty goal from Brandon Hagel.
It could be argued that this series had leaned further towards Lightning with each game.
Game 1 was effectively a joke, with the Rangers winning 6-2, and the Lightning looking rusty after a week off after winning the Florida Panthers in the previous round.
The Rangers won Game 2 at home, 3-2, and opened up a 2-0 lead in Game 3 in Tampa. But that was the highlight. Thirty seconds later, Lightning scored and won again by 3-2. In Game 4, Lightning dominated in a 4-1 victory. Suddenly, the series was tied.
Rangers relied on homebuilding and fans on Thursday to reverse that trend, apparently as much as they relied on 52-goal top scorer Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin, often the best player on the ice.
Kreider’s power-play prowess – he led the league in men’s lead goals – was limited by the game’s almost no whistle. The Rangers were called up for just two penalties in the game and Lightning. (A post-game riot — starring Steven Stamkos and Alexis Lafrenière — led to six more who arrived too late to affect the final score.)
“It was one of those games; it was a defensive battle,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said, saying Shesterkin was scrutinized and didn’t see the first or second goal. “We played a good game of hockey. It’s hard to lose like that in the end, but it was a good hockey game. It could have gone anyway.”
The year has been a successful one for the Rangers, who are coming off a demolition and rebuilding that saw them miss the playoffs in the previous four seasons. For a team that at its best was 25-1 when the season started, a conference final is a comeback. And despite the loss of deflation, the Rangers are still not technically dead.
The Rangers came back from a three-game deficit to one against the Penguins, finally winning in overtime in Game 7. They came back twice against the Hurricanes in the next round and won another Game 7.
Now with three games to two again, they need two straight wins. Worryingly, the first one on Saturday is due to come in Tampa.