TAMPA, Fla. — The pushback from the Lightning was inevitable, and every Ranger acknowledged it after they built a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final, but the team did not look ready for it.
The Rangers allowed the Lightning to waltz right back into the series with back-to-back wins at home, including the 4-1 beating the visitors took in Game 4 Tuesday night at Amalie Arena, to knot this best-of-the-East showdown at two-all heading back to the Garden.
The Rangers had a golden opportunity, and they swung and missed, twice. It may have cost them a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Lightning looked like an entirely different team in the last two games, like the reigning back-to-back champions that they are. The Rangers, on the other hand, didn’t look anything like the squad that outscored Tampa Bay 9-4 through Games 1 and 2.
As the Lightning rediscovered their championship-winning formula, the Rangers fell back into habits that plagued them through the start of the season, when goalie Igor Shesterkin carried them to a respectable record as they worked out the kinks in their game.
Shesterkin couldn’t play hero in this one as he gave up three goals on 29 shots.
The Rangers couldn’t do much in the neutral zone, whether it was slowing the Lightning down or powering through to get into the offensive zone. They were often chasing the play. And while staring up at a two-goal deficit at the start of the third period courtesy of Pat Maroon and Nikita Kucherov, Chris Kreider took two penalties and the Rangers were outshot 6-1 through the opening minutes of the final frame.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos then cleaned up a rebound to put the nail in the Rangers’ coffin less than five minutes into the third. The Rangers were only able to get on the board during a six-on-four power play when Artemi Panarin put one past Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who finished with 33 saves.
The Rangers were without Ryan Strome, who was a last-minute scratch despite taking pregame warm-ups. Strome exited the Rangers’ 3-2 loss in Game 3 Sunday afternoon with a lower-body injury, which presumably kept him out of Game 4 as well. As a result, Kevin Rooney drew back into the lineup for the first time since Game 5 of the second-round series against the Hurricanes.
After Filip Chytil absorbed a hit from Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman in the second period, however, the Rangers were suddenly down to 11 forwards. The Rangers said Chytil suffered an upper-body injury.
But the Lightning were in complete control from puck drop. Just over 2 ¹/₂ minutes into the game, Tampa Bay defenseman Zach Bogosian skated right around Ryan Reaves and then shifted right around Justin Braun to put a shot on net that Maroon cleaned up to open the scoring.
Less than four minutes later, the Rangers continued to struggle with slowing down Bogosian as Reaves was called for a trip on the upstate New York native to send the Lightning to the power play. Tampa Bay thought it doubled its score when the puck ended up under Shesterkin’s pads, which Lightning players pushed over the goal line with their sticks. A short review ended with a no-goal call.
The Lightning ultimately didn’t need it. They scored in many other ways, because that’s what champions do. And boy, did Tampa Bay look like a team that knows how to win.