Though they faced the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning and though they needed seven games to get out of each of the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Rangers always had an ace in their pocket: the fortress of Madison Square Garden.
Even after two losses in Tampa that allowed the Lightning to tie the series, there was an unwavering sense of confidence that Rangerland would go into Game 5. triple overtime in the very first game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
So when the Lightning finished the magic with a 3-1 victory at the Garden on Thursday night, it was a hammer blow. And it’s all the more frustrating that Tampa’s key goals were scored not only by the power trio of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, but also by an unlikely defender who made a couple of low-percentage shots.
The Rangers got off to a promising start. Seemingly filled with the energy of their venerable arena, they played from the first faceoff with authority and precision that Tampa did not have. The pace was fast and the first period was free and no penalties.
Unfortunately for the Rangers, who clearly had the upper hand, it was also goalless. New York hit eight shots, all of which were saved by Lightning goaltender Andrey Vasilevsky. His colleague Igor Shesterkin was called upon to save three at once. And it came from the Rangers team, which lost 153-127 in the first four games.
At times, the Lightning looked less like two-time defending champions early in the game than like a team excited about the event. Every time (and there were many) when there was a face-off at the end of the Lightning, there was a feeling that this would be the moment when the Rangers finally broke through.
But superiority doesn’t count if you don’t score a goal. The Rangers finally got their way at 10:29 of the second period, not through dominance but almost by accident. Defenseman Ryan Lindgren scored his first point of the series and second goal of the playoffs on a speculative overboard shot that may have been intended to deflect. Instead, he entered.
But if New York was counting on first blood to open the game, they were wrong. A one-goal win is a thin reed, even at the Garden. Tampa Bay’s response came at 17:34 seconds, which was somehow even more unlikely.
Defender Mikhail Sergachev scored his first goal in the playoffs. That, too, was unaided: a high kick almost from the blue line that went waist-deep past at least three Rangers, as well as Lightning’s Corey Perry camped in the crease, then, most importantly, Shesterkin, who missed nothing. could do.
The guests not only equalized the score, but also deprived the Rangers of superiority. After the second period, the gap in shots narrowed, and both goalkeepers made exactly 15 saves on 16 shots.
In a hectic third period, both sides almost managed to capitalize on the opposition’s breaks and mistakes, and tension led to a couple of clashes.
With 1:50 left, Tampa landed a devastating blow, unlikely, again as Sergachev, right from behind the blue line. sent the puck through the traffic and Chambers rejected him home. It sucked the life out of the raucous Garden fans who were already gearing up for one or more overtimes and essentially ended the game, though Tampa added an empty-netted Brandon Hagel goal.
It could be argued that with each game, this series has leaned towards Lightning. The Rangers have only scored two goals in their last eight hockey seasons.
Game 1 was actually a romp, with Rangers win6-2, and the Lightning look rusty after a week off after beating the Florida Panthers in the previous round.
The Rangers won Game 2 3-2 at home and took a 2-0 lead in Game 3 in Tampa. But that was the high point. Thirty seconds later, the Lightning scored to win 3-2. In game 4 The predominance of lightning in a 4-1 victory. Suddenly, the series ended.
The Rangers have counted on Thursday’s home build and crowd to reverse the trend, apparently as much as they have counted on the likes of Chris Kreider, who scored 52 goals, and Artemi Panarin, who are often the best players on the table. ice.
Crider’s powerplay prowess—he led the league in goal scoring with an advantage over the players—was limited to playing with little to no whistles. The Rangers were called up for just two in-game penalties and one blitz. (Post-match hype starring Steven Stamkos and Alexis Lafrenière resulted in six more matches being too late to affect the final score.)
“It was one of those games; it was a defensive fight,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said, stating that Shesterkin was filmed and did not see either the first or second goal. “We played good hockey. It’s hard to lose like that at the end, but it was a good hockey game. Everything could have gone either way.”
The year has been a good one for the Rangers, who are rebuilding and rebuilding, which has led to them not making the playoffs in the previous four seasons, and the Conference Finals is an over-fulfillment. And despite the devaluing defeat, the Rangers are technically not dead yet.
The Rangers lost three to one to the Penguins and finally won in overtime in Game 7. They came back twice against the Hurricanes in the next round and won another game 7.
Now that they are losing three games to two again, they need two wins in a row. Unfortunately, the first one is scheduled to arrive in Tampa on Saturday.