TAMPA, Fla. — Listen, we all understood how arduous the task would be for the Rangers to dethrone the two-time defending Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, even when the Blueshirts took the first two games of the series at the Garden.
But the caliber of the opposition and the degree of difficulty of this challenge does not line up with the Rangers’ response here in Games 3 and 4. It isn’t that they lost twice, it isn’t even that they failed to score a five-on-five goal in 120:00 after recording eight in the first 101:21 of the series.
It is that the club’s level of desperation did not seem close to matching Tampa Bay’s. And if the Rangers are going to be able to do this, their level of commitment and desire needs an exponential increase.
And yes, it is easy for me to say and easy for me to chastise this club that has played 18 games in 36 days and has defied expectations just the way they did throughout the season. But here they are, two victories away from the final, six victories away from lifting the chalice, and if this is representative of what the Blueshirts have left, it won’t be good enough.
“They better be ready to play harder,” head coach Gerard Gallant said. “[Tampa Bay] did the right things to win the hockey game. They paid the price.”
And the Rangers in this one?
“Not enough. Not enough,” the coach said. “We didn’t block enough shots, we didn’t finish enough hits, we didn’t do enough of the good things that allow you to win hockey games.
“We didn’t get inside enough. [Andrei] Vasilevskiy made some good saves but not as many as Shesty [Igor Shesterkin]. We’ve got to give him more than that.”
Apparently that was much easier said than done more in this one for a team that played without Ryan Strome and then lost Filip Chytil to an upper-body issue during the second period. Regardless, the Blueshirts were unable to create any time and space for themselves through the neutral zone as a consequence of being pinned in their own end rather routinely.
They could not go east-west and get Vasilevskiy moving from side-to-side. They could not generate an effective forecheck. They did not earn their first power play until the 6:37 mark of the third period. They were on their heels, perhaps too respectful of their opponents, who have won 10 straight playoff rounds for a reason or two.
And while Ryan Reaves has been quite effective in his fourth-line role, seeing No. 75 all but wave Zach Bogosian to the net on a right-wing rush that ended with Pat Maroon’s game-opening goal off a rebound at 2:38 of the first period was emblematic of the Blueshirts’ unacceptable effort for a conference final match.
Gallant mixed his lines coming out of the first period, flipping Artemi Panarin with Chris Kreider, thus pairing the Russian Rocket with Mika Zibanejad while No. 20 skated with Andrew Copp and Barclay Goodrow. The moves had little effect, though Panarin’s game seemed to perk up. There were more adjustments in the third period.
“I don’t think we lost our confidence,” said Panarin, who scored a power-play goal at 16:27 of the third period that brought his team within 3-1 before Tampa Bay sealed it with an empty-netter. “Just be more hungry.”
They should be more hungry. They should also be more desperate confronting this situation that realistically would represent the club’s best chance to stay afloat. If there were ever a sense of false security, that has been blown to smithereens.
The Rangers are in a knife fight with the champs, who have been down this road a few times before even if they had not lost two straight playoff games within the last three tournaments until Games 1 and 2.
“Of course you’re going to get a desperate team down 0-2. Absolutely we’ve been the more desperate team the last two games,” Steven Stamkos said, acknowledging the obvious. “We knew how important these two games were.
“They knew they were going to get a desperate team. Now we’re feeling good about ourselves, and I’m sure the desperation is going to kick in for them now.’’
There is no other option for the Rangers. The fight has kicked into gear.