The Rangers were taking a step up in competition, so they stepped up their game.
Filip Chytil scored two goals and five other Rangers had multiple point games in a convincing 6-2 win over the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden last night.
Beside Chytil, Mika Zibanejad, Frank Vatrano and Artemi Panarin each had a goal and an assist while Alexis LaFreniere and Adam Fox each had two assists as the Rangers got contributions from up and down the lineup.
Tampa Bay had nine days off since they swept Florida in the second round and maybe it was a matter of rust, but don’t tell that to the Rangers who dictated the play and scored six goals on one of the best defensive teams in the league.
The storyline entering game one highlighted the goaltenders. Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is considered the best goalie in the game, but on this night, Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin was the better player and the crowd let Vasilevskiy know it with chants of “Igor’s better.”
Shesterkin made 37 saves and was particularly good against Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov who had seven shots on the 26 year old netminder, but no goals. Vasilevskiy gave up six goals on 34 shots. A far cry from the previous series against Florida, when last season’s Conn Smythe winner gave up three goals in four games.
The Rangers were better in all facets of the game including special teams. With the man advantage, the Rangers were 1 for 2 while they kept Tampa Bay off the board in three tries with the extra skater.
The Blueshirts didn’t waste any time in getting the early lead.
Zibanejad chased down a loose puck in the right faceoff circle and passed to a wide open Kreider who fired the puck past Vasilevskiy for his ninth of the playoffs and a 1-0 lead just 71 seconds into the game.
The Lightning tied the game at one at 7:18 of the first period when Steven Stamkos took a pass from Jan Rutta and blasted the puck past Shesterkin.
The Rangers held off a surge by the Lightning after they tied it. Shesterkin denied Kucherov twice while Jacob Trouba and Chris Kreider blocked back to back shots from in front to keep the game tied at one, after one.
The Rangers retook the lead in the second period when Frank Vatrano scored at 7:50 but the Lightning came right back.
42 seconds after the go ahead goal, Tampa Bay’s Ondrej Palat tied the game with his 5th goal of the playoffs at 8:32. Stamkos put a backhander on net and Palat buried the rebound to make it a 2-2 game.
However, the kid line of Chytil, LaFreniere and Kappo Kakko wasn’t kidding as they continue to be one of the pleasant surprises in this post season.
“They got inside, they scored some nice goals, they made some good plays and you know they’re attacking,” Head Coach Gerard Gallant said after the game. “They’re a confident bunch of kids right now and they need that to continue.”
Kakko controlled the puck behind the Lightning net and made a terrific pass to Filip Chytil who fired the puck through a crowd for the go ahead goal as the Rangers grabbed a 3-2 lead at 10:09 of the second.
The Rangers made it 4-2 a little over five minutes later. Chytil scored his second goal of the game and 7th of the playoffs at 15:43. LaFreniere had the puck in the offensive zone just inside the blue line and passed to K’Andre Miller who was on the left side. Miller fired cross ice to Chytil who one timed it past Vasilevskiy.
Chytil was frustrated during the regular season because he felt he should’ve been scoring more goals, but the playoffs have been a revelation for the young Ranger. “Now its finally going in. I’m so happy I can help the team like this and win the games,” Chytil said after the game.
Chytil is opening eyes around the NHL with his performance in this post season.
The 22-year old has five goals in his last three games and has been a major component of this Rangers’ playoff run. “He worked hard and he competes hard and he deserves what he’s getting right now ‘cause he stepped his game up,” Gallant said. “He knows it, everybody knows it and that’s exactly what we need from him.”
The Rangers never took their foot off the gas in the final 20 minutes. “They’re [Tampa Bay] a team that can score goals in bunches also so we know no lead is safe against them. We still gotta do the little things right, regardless of the score. You can’t give them any freebies,” Vatrano said.
It took just :30 seconds into the third period for the Rangers to take a three goal lead. Panarin took a pretty, back hand, cross ice pass from Andrew Copp and didn’t hesitate as he scored his fifth goal of the playoffs to give the Rangers a 5-2 advantage.
At the 6:06 mark of the third period, Zibanejad scored his eighth goal of the playoffs on the power play to put the game out of reach. Panarin passed cross ice to Zibanejad who was in his familiar spot in the left faceoff circle to fire his patented one timer past Vasilevskiy. “When he’s in that spot on the power play, he has a special shot, especially the one timer,” Vatrano said about his teammate. “He puts it on net, good chance it’s going in.”
Zibanejad now has 21 points (8 goals, 13 assists) in the post season and a six game point scoring streak.
The Rangers played a complete game and they even won the faceoff battle for the first time in 15 playoff games with a 33-22 advantage in the dots.
There’s a reason Tampa Bay has won the past two Stanley Cup championships and you can bet you’ll see a different Lightning team in game two on Friday night.
Vatrano and the Rangers have the right mindset heading into game two. “Take it one game at a time,” he said. “They’re a good team over there. We can’t let our foot off the throttle. We just have to keep playing one shift at a time, one game at a time and stick to our gameplan.”