The night didn’t start well for the Rangers. It didn’t end well, either.
Two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay has found their game and it’s going to take some doing if the Rangers hope to win this series. Even though the series is tied at two games apiece, the last two games make it feel like the Rangers are trailing.
Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy made 34 saves and was never really tested as the Lightning evened the series with a dominant 4-1 win in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals at Amalie Arena. Rangers fell to 2-7 on the road in the post season.
“Vasilevskiy made some good saves, but he didn’t have to make enough good saves. Not near as many as Shesky [Igor Shesterkin] had to make,” Head Coach Gerard Gallant said after a disappointing loss.
Shesterkin made 27 saves but, as has been the case in a number of games this post season, had to work much harder than his counterpart.
Tampa Bay dictated and controlled the play while frustrating the Rangers with a neutral zone trap that forced turnovers and led to odd man rushes against Shesterkin.
“They did a great job in the neutral zone. They collapsed pretty good in the [defensive] zone, they blocked a lot of shots,” Head Coach Gerard Gallant said after a disappointing loss. “They did the right things to win a hockey game, they paid a price to win tonight.”
When asked if his team paid a price, Gallant responded, “Not enough, not enough. We didn’t block enough shots, we didn’t finish enough hits. You know the good things that make you win games. That’s what we gotta do better.”
Before the game, Ryan Strome was on the ice for warm ups, but he just couldn’t go after it appeared he may play. During the game, the Rangers took another punch to the gut when they lost Filip Chytil in the second period with an upper body injury following a collision with Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman.
Injuries are not an excuse but they are a factor. Tampa Bay is playing without Brayden Point, while the Rangers were missing their #2 and #3 centers, and another center, Barclay Goodrow is certainly not healthy.
The Lightning got a fast start thanks to their fourth line.
Zach Bogasian skated in on right wing and beat Ryan Reaves to get to the net and put a backhand shot on Shesterkin who made the initial save. Pat Maroon pounced on the rebound to score the first goal just 2:38 into the game, as all five Rangers on the ice were just left standing around.
Despite a 10-8 shot advantage in the first period, it was not as if the Rangers had the better of the play as they trailed 1-0.
The Lightning took a 2-0 lead in the second period thanks to the Rangers’ poor play in the neutral zone.
The fateful sequence began when Shesterkin made a big save on Nikita Kucherov but the Rangers coughed up the puck in the neutral zone. Ondrej Palat, who is having a big series, found Kucherov on a break in to the Rangers’ zone and he beat Shesterkin, five hole for a two goal lead that really demoralized the Rangers.
The Rangers had a 22-15 shot advantage through two periods but they trailed 2-0 to a team that was giving them no room and shutting them down.
In the third, Palat won a battle with Mika Zibanejad and fired from the slot. Shesterkin made the save but the rebound came right to Steven Stamkos who buried the puck for an insurmountable 3-0 lead at the 4:56 mark.
With less than four minutes remaining, Alex Killorn was called for holding. Gallant pulled Shesterkin and the Rangers finally got on the board.
Artemi Panarin, who had been a non factor up to that point, found the back of the net just :19 seconds into the power play to cut the deficit to 3-1, but it wouldn’t be enough.
Palat, who had a three point night, put the capper on this one with an empty net goal with nine seconds remaining.
The series is now a best of three. Heading into game five on Thursday night, the Rangers, who have won eight consecutive home games in the post season, are banking on that to carry them through. “I’m hoping it’s gonna be a homer series,” Gallant said. “That’s what it looks like so far. We were pretty good in our building, they were pretty good in their building.”
The Rangers have not scored a five on five goal since early in the third period of game two. That puts a lot more pressure on the power play and the Rangers have not been getting that many chances with the man advantage anyway.
Neutral zone play will need to improve and the Rangers will need to be better along the boards. Tampa Bay won most of those battles in these last two games and it gave them scoring chances that they cashed in on.
Jacob Trouba said the Rangers are still set up well to have success in this series. “Best of three in a conference final. It’s something to be excited about as a group. We’re in a pretty good spot here. We’re gonna go home and do what we can to win a game,” he said.
The Rangers will need to win at least one of the next two to guarantee that there will be a game seven, but if they don’t win game five, they may not see the Garden again until next season.
Can the Rangers reach into their bag of resilience one more time?