How the Rangers-Lightning series got to 2-2, and what comes next
7: 23 AM ET
- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
The Tampa Bay Lightning won Games 3 and 4 at home to knot up their Eastern Conference finals series against the New York Rangers at 2-2.
They looked very much like a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion in doing so: controlling play, coming through in the clutch and getting superstar performances from winger Nikita Kucherov, center Steven Stamkos and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Game 3 was a 3-2 stunner, with winger Ondrej Palat scoring the game winner with 42 seconds before overtime. Game 4 was more dominant, with the Rangers’ defense and forecheck grinding to a halt by the Lightning in a 4-1 victory.
“We’re one of three teams left here. You expect the best. You expect their best. And we want to show we can beat the best,” Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba said. “We feel that we are an up-and coming team. We’ve arrived. We want to play these matches. “
As the series shifts back to New York, here are five takeaways from the Eastern Conference finals:
Andrei Vasilevskiy vs. Igor Shesterkin
Lightning coach Jon Cooper felt that Vasilevskiy was impacted by the team’s nine-day layoff between sweeping the Florida Panthers and Game 1 against the Rangers.
The highly anticipated goalie duel between former Russian national teammates started a bit lopsided. In Games 1 and 2, Vasilevskiy, the Lightning’s playoff MVP in 2021, posted a . 826 save percentage with a 4. 80 goals-against average and a minus-3. 86 goals saved above expected at 5-on-5. Shesterkin, who was expected to win this season’s Vezina Trophy, had a stellar performance. 964 save percentage at 5-on-5 in the Rangers’ opening wins.
The script flipped in Tampa Bay. Vasilevskiy did not allow an even-strength goal, and posted a. 953 save percentage overall in his two wins. Shesterkin was no slouch and had a. 933 save percentage at 5-on-5 and a 0. 926 save percentage overall in Tampa Bay.
“He’s getting his mojo back,” Cooper said. Cooper said that Cooper is now feeling more confident and has played a few games. “
The Rangers, however, felt like they didn’t challenge him enough in Games 3 and 4. Their game was also characterized by too much hesitation.
“It wasn’t second- and third-chance opportunities in the first two home games. It was moving from the east to the middle of the ice, and getting the puck off your stick in under a second. I don’t care about who’s in the net. Every goalie has to deal with a puck that moves east/west. They have to fight through traffic and then they can’t get it set up on net. That’s what gives us our best chance,” forward Chris Kreider said.
“To a man, I think we can say that we all received a pass tonight, got it, picked our head up and tried to pick a spot as opposed to getting it off quick. Even if he saves, it’s going to be difficult to control a rebound like that. He said that in the first two games, that was how we found success.
The Cirelli line emerges
What motivated Cooper to drop Anthony Cirelli from their top line and slide him between wingers Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn for Game 3?
“Stopping them,” he said.
The aforementioned “them” was the trio of Mika Zibanejad, Kreider and Frank Vatrano, who factored into four even-strength goals during the Rangers’ two wins at Madison Square Garden. The Lightning made the last change at home. They used the new checking line against Zibanejad’s group. In Game 3, the Cirelli line was plus-19 in shot attempts; in Game 4, shot attempts were an even 15-15. They kept the Rangers’ top scorers off of the board in both games.
“It’s a good line. They have a role to play. I thought we made [in Game 4]. more offensive. Zibanejad stated that we should only worry about ourselves, and not about the other players.
Killorn credited Cirelli, one of the NHL’s best defensive centers, for being a vital factor in slowing Zibanejad.
“As a line, we keep it pretty simple. As cliché as it sounds, we do our best to keep pucks away from their defensemen. All three of us are pretty good at protecting the puck low in those situations. Killorn stated that if we make them play defense for at least a third of the game, it’s a success for us in what our goal is to do.”
The Rangers will have to find a way to get their top line away from this pesky trio in Game 5.
More Rangers power-play dominance
The Rangers’ power play continues to be on an absolute roll. Artemi Panarin‘s power-play goal in Game 4 was their 17th of the postseason on 53 opportunities — their 32.1% conversion rate is the best in the Stanley Cup playoffs through 18 games. In eight of their nine postseason games, the Rangers have scored a power play goal.
It starts with Adam Fox at the blue line, who joins Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche — not coincidentally the second best power-play team in the Stanley Cup playoffs — as the best young quarterbacks in the NHL.
“He’s shifty and extremely deceptive. Cooper stated that you have to defend him differently from other guys. Cooper said, “He doesn’t have the best shot in the world, but knows how to get it done, and that can make it even more dangerous. He knows where to place them. He knows which stick to use — not necessarily to score, but to position a puck for someone to score. He keeps pucks in. He knows where the [defenseman’s] out and their clear are. He always seems to be in the right spot. He’s a typical quarterback up there. “
Rather than try to shut down Fox, the Lightning focus on disrupting two other players on the Rangers’ power play: Panarin, who expertly distributes the puck, and Zibanejad, who loves taking one-timers in the “Ovi Spot” on the power play.
“We can keep the puck out Panarin’s hands a little bit less, and one or two fewer passes going to Zibanejad,” Cooper said.
The Lightning coach believes they’re holding their own against this potent unit.
“It’s a tricky power play. He said that there was no better against us than them all year. “They were 25% [in the regular season], which is a damn good power play. We hope to limit their performance to less than they did in the regular season. We are currently at par. “
Actually, it was 25.2%. But who is counting?
The Rangers got some major injury breaks in the first two rounds — just ask any Pittsburgh Penguins or Carolina Hurricanes fan, and they will emphatically acknowledge that. But injuries have caught up to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals, and not just the ones defenseman Ryan Lindgren miraculously keeps playing through.
Rangers coach Gerard Gallant kept saying he expected center Ryan Strome, who suffered a lower-body injury in Game 3, would be available for Game 4. Gallant now calls him “day to day” because he was not there. Center Filip Chytil, arguably the most important player on the Rangers’ dynamic “Kid Line,” left Game 4 in the second period with an upper-body injury. Gallant stated that Chytil should be fine but that it was a matter of time before we know for sure. Center Barclay Goodrow, who blocked a shot with his foot in Game 3, managed to play in Game 4.
At least one Rangers player seems to be working his way back: forward Sammy Blais, who has been out since Nov. 14, 2021, with a torn ACL. During practice for Game 4, he wore a regular jersey. Gallant still considers him a long shot for the conference finals.
“Every team is dealing with injuries. We like the diversity of our team. Trouba stated, “I think we can manage injuries and overcome them.” “Do they miss us? Yeah. Do you hope they return? Yeah. But we have to be able play without them. “
Meanwhile, the Lightning are still waiting for the return of star center Brayden Point after he left Game 7 of the first round against the Maple Leafs with a lower-body injury. He has been skating regularly and there is still hope that he will return during this round.
“If it goes seven, optimism stays up. Cooper stated that if it goes five, it becomes a little dicey.”
Well, it’s going at least six.
Finally, no quit — or panic — in N.Y.
Game 5 is back at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, with the series tied 2-2.
“We have to be positive. We’ve been in worse situations before. We’re OK. We do well in the Garden. Our fans? Panarin stated that it would be great to see them again.
The Rangers winger said the losses in Tampa will make his team “more hungry and angrier” heading back home. “Sometimes it’s good to lose. It’s how we’ll respond, I believe. I don’t believe we have lost our confidence. Panarin stated that they would only be hungry the next game.
They should be confident: The Rangers are on an eight-game winning streak in New York, with their only home postseason loss coming in triple overtime of Game 1 against the Penguins in the opening round. They have been a different team at home and away during their Stanley Cup playoff run. They average 4. 22 goals per game and give up 2. 22 goals per game; on the road, the Rangers average 2. 44 goals per game and give up 3. 67 goals per game.
“I’m hoping it’s going to be a homer series. This is what it looks like so far. Gallant stated that we are pretty good in our building and they are pretty good at their building.
Like his players, Gallant believes the Rangers can be confident going home. But not too confident.
“They’d better be calm, but they’d better go out and play harder,” he said. It’s a two-out-of-three. We have the home ice. We have to play better. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.