Seven years ago, the Rangers were favored over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals. Those Rangers were trying to get back to the Cup Final for a second consecutive season, while the Lightning was the team on the rise.
The roles seem to have been reversed in the 2022 Eastern Conference Finals. Tampa Bay is trying to get back to the Final and win their third consecutive Cup championship while the Rangers are the team on the rise and boy, are they rising.
Mika Zibanejad continued his amazing run in the post season with a huge third period goal while Chris Kreider and Adam Fox had two assists apiece as the Rangers survived a furious final few minutes to beat Tampa Bay, 3-2. The Rangers took a two games to none lead over the two time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning. The scene now shifts to Tampa Bay for games three and four.
“We knew they were gonna push real hard,” head coach Gerard Gallant said. “You know we held on a little bit there, a little bit too much for me. Anyway, we battled, we found a way. We’re playing against a real good team over there.”
Igor Shesterkin has so far outplayed his counterpart, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Shesterkin made 29 saves while Vasilevskiy stopped 25 of 28 shots and has now yielded nine goals in two games after giving up only three in the previous four games.
Tampa Bay got an early power play and cashed it in for a 1-0 lead. Ryan Reaves was called for slashing following a mini scrum with Lightning winger Pat Maroon at 2:32 of the first period.
Tampa Bay won the face off and Nikita Kucherov fired the puck, through traffic, past Shesterkin at 2:41 of the first period for the first score of the game.
The Lightning was controlling the game for the first five minutes but the Rangers found their legs and it paid off with the game tying goal by K’Andre Miller, his second of the playoffs.
Being the trailer on the rush, Miller fired a shot that was initially blocked by Tampa Bay’s Brandon Hagel but the puck came right back to the 22-year old defenseman, who didn’t hesitate and fired it again and beat Vasilevskiy on the blocker side to tie the game at one.
“Frankie [Vatrano] made a great play down low, finding me kinda in the high slot,” Miller said about scoring the tying goal. “Tried to get a puck on net quick, got blocked, got it back again and just put it on net.”
Shesterkin was tested a few minutes later. Steven Stamkos got behind the defense and skated past the goal but Shesterkin stuck out his pad and blocked the shot at the right post to keep the game tied.
With 2:28 remaining, Adam Fox made a pretty pass to Kappo Kakko, who was down low and he just poked it into the net to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead.
The teams skated through a scoreless second period with the Rangers getting the better of the play until the latter stages.
At one point, Alexis LaFreniere hit the post. Later in the period, Tyler Motte came close to scoring. Motte put a backhander on the net and the puck was laying in the crease, but Tampa Bay’s Corey Perry was able to swat it to Vasilevskiy to keep the Rangers from adding to their lead.
Tampa Bay controlled the puck as the Rangers failed to get a shot on goal for nearly the final eight minutes, but Shesterkin kept the Lightning from tying the game.
The 26-year old Ranger netminder stoned Ross Colton from in front and then denied Anthony Cirelli on a deflection as the Lightning applied pressure in the defensive zone.
In the third, Kucherov turned the puck over near Tampa’s blue line. Kreider picked up the loose puck and got it to Fox who fed Zibanejad for a wrister that beat Vasilevskiy once again on the blocker side as the Rangers took a 3-1 lead.
The goal was Zibanejad’s ninth of the playoffs. He leads the team with 22 points (third in franchise history behind Brian Leetch and Mark Messier for the most in one post season) and he has now scored a goal in each of the Rangers’ last six home playoff games, but this one would prove to be huge.
A little over six minutes into the third period, Shesterkin stopped Maroon, who was wide open in front of the net, to keep it a two goal lead.
Midway through the third period, Jacob Trouba leveled one of his patented hard, but clean hits on Lightning center Anthony Cirelli at the Rangers blue line.
With 6:05 remaining, the Rangers had a golden opportunity to blow the game open. Victor Hedman was called for tripping Alexis LaFreniere but the Rangers failed to capitalize and ended up 0 for 4 in the game with the man advantage.
With 3:49 remaining, Tampa Bay pulled Vasilevskiy and put on a furious charge to try and tie the game.
Lightning defenseman Nick Paul completed a tic-tac-toe play as he got Shesterkin down and was able to bury the puck to cut the Ranger lead to one with 2:02 left.
Tampa Bay tried desperately to get the tying goal but Trouba blocked Stamkos’ shot while Shesterkin made some big saves on shots from Stamkos, Kucherov and Hedman in the final minute.
The loss snapped Tampa Bay’s streak of 18 consecutive wins after a playoff loss, dating back to 2020. The win extended the Rangers and Shesterkin’s streak of eight straight home wins in the playoffs.
The Rangers are getting contributions from up and down the lineup, but the stars have upped their level, particularly Zibanejad and Fox who has been brilliant in this series after a slow start in the post season.
“He’s played outstanding hockey. He moves the puck so well. Both zones, “d” zone, offensive zone, he’s really the leader of our team, he’s made some big, big plays,” Gallant said.
The Rangers seem to be getting a lot more room to operate in this series than they did against Carolina. Fox said, even with room, you can’t sleep on Tampa Bay. “They play different from Carolina so maybe it might feel that way but they got a lot of guys who are dangerous. You don’t wanna think you got space and then turn one over in the neutral zone and they’re going the other way,” he said.
Unlike the previous two series, the Rangers lead this one but Fox knows things will get even tougher in Tampa. “We were on the other side of this. We were down two nothing so it’s a good lesson for us not to take our foot off the gas going on the road here,” Fox said.
Gallant said it’s time to take this show on the road. “To play the way we did the last two games, that’s the way we’re going to have to play to win the series.”