Rangers should take page from Lightning


This was in 1983 in the immediate aftermath of the Islanders’ sweep of Edmonton that produced the Dynasty’s fourth straight Cup. Later you’d hear Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe and their teammates talk about how they learned about the sacrifice it would take to win a championship when they got a glimpse of their opponents laid out in ice bags in their locker room after doing the victory lap.

These Rangers are neither the 1983 Islanders nor Oilers. But these Lightning, already more than halfway to the Dynasty’s world-record 19 consecutive playoff series victories, are a pretty good role model for any team with championship intentions.

They beat you, but they can also teach you.

It would help the Rangers to recognize that on the fly before Thursday’s Game 5 following Tampa Bay’s consecutive Games 3 and 4 victories at home that squared the conference finals at two-apiece. The sky did not exactly fall in on the Blueshirts but the more this series has evolved, the more it seems as if Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Ryan McDonagh and Andrei Vasilevskiy have rediscovered their A-games and that the Lightning have found their rhythm.

This should not be interpreted as an insult by the Blueshirts, who are going through this for the first time. Experience can be applied within a series. It doesn’t have to wait until the next season or the on after that. The Rangers should not only appreciate Tampa Bay’s ceaseless work ethic, they should appropriate it.

Urgency is one word. Discipline is another.

Both apply.

Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) during the Game 4 loss to the Lightning on Tuesday,
Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) during the Game 4 loss to the Lightning on Tuesday.

“They haven’t made any mistakes. We haven’t had many scoring chances, like we’ve talked about, but they haven’t opened up the game,” head coach Gerard Gallant said before the club chartered home Wednesday morning. “They haven’t had a whole lot of scoring chances, either, but they haven’t made mistakes.

“I think that’s from experience as a winning team.”

Look, there is no doubt that getting Mika Zibanejad away from a dedicated checking line matchup should unshackle the Swede the way it has at least since the start of the second round. When Zibanejad is going, the Rangers tend to follow in his dynamic wake. They’re a different looking team, one that gets some confidence off their open-ice, east-west creativity.

Matchups have played a perhaps outsized role in the Blueshirts’ split in which they are 8-1 at the Garden, having won eight straight following the Round 1, Game 1 triple-overtime defeat to the Penguins, and only 2-7 on the road. Teams have won that way. The 2003 Devils, who were 12-1 at the Meadowlands and 4-8 on the road, come to mind.

But the burden/opportunity will be there for Zibanejad to go power-on-power, maybe against the Ondrej Palat-Stamkos-Kucherov unit, and establish a tempo. At the same time, though, the Rangers cannot become seduced because they are playing in their friendly confines. That kind of backfired in Game 7 of 2015, wouldn’t you — and Chris Kreider, McDonagh, Stamkos, Palat and Kucherov — agree? If limiting mistakes is an ingrained Lightning trait that the Rangers could borrow, so is the champs’ commitment to win every puck. Their elite talents are able to simplify matters. The Rangers are going to have to be willing to dumb it down and get the puck in behind the Tampa defense while establishing some sort of meaningful ground game.

This is going to be much more difficult if either Ryan Strome or Filip Chytil is down for an extended period, and doubly so if both are sidelined for the next one. Chytil and linemates Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko have provided an endless supply of energy as they get the puck in deep and get to work on a cycle. At home, with the fans’ roars accompanying the effort, the Rangers need that line’s ethos to roll into the next and create a thunder of New York’s own.

Filip Chytil (72) was injured during the Rangers' Game 4 loss to the Lightning.
Filip Chytil (72) was injured during the Rangers’ Game 4 loss to the Lightning.
Corey Sipkin

This team has traveled miles and miles. But the climb gets steeper with every step and with every game. It is tougher because of the opponents who have a collective hatred of losing and will have to be knocked out in order to be stopped. The Rangers have to find another level here in order to preserve. They are going to have match Tampa Bay’s shift-by-shift physicality.

Andrew Copp acknowledged playing a team with “championship habits,” but maintained, as his teammates have all along, that the team is merely focusing on itself.

“I don’t think we’re looking at the other side to see how they overcome adversity or what kind of game they’re playing,” said No. 18. “I think when we play our game, we’re really tough to beat.”

That’s true. But the Rangers have to elevate their game. The team they’re facing has done that over and over and over again. No shame in borrowing from the best.

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