If the Rangers’ playoff run was going to end, you just knew it had to be in heartbreaking fashion.
Steven Stamkos’ second goal of the game with less than six and half minutes left in the third period led the Tampa Bay Lightning to a 2-1 win over the Rangers in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals at Amalie Arena last night.
The Lightning won the series 4-2 and punched their ticket to a third straight berth in the Stanley Cup Final where they will go for three straight championships against the Colorado Avalanche.
Tampa Bay won four straight games after dropping the first two games at Madison Square Garden. Three of those were by one goal.
Head Coach Gerard Gallant’s team did their best but they ran into a team whose championship pedigree overwhelmed the Rangers’ young and inexperienced club. “It’s hard right now but like I said, we played well. We battled hard we had a chance to win all those games,” Gallant said.
Andrei Vasilevskiy was brilliant once again as he made 20 saves including a huge stop in the third period when Andrew Copp was on the doorstep.
Igor Shesterkin was just as good and maybe even better because he was tested a whole lot more and without him, this could’ve been a 7-1 game. The 26 year old goalie stopped 28 shots and kept the Rangers within striking distance.
The teams skated through a scoreless first period until Stamkos’ first goal of the game gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead at 10:43 of the second period.
The Lightning captain corralled a loose puck at center ice and skated into the Ranger zone. Stamkos fired a shot from just past the top of the right face off circle that beat Shesterkin on the stick side to snap the scoreless tie.
In the third, Stamkos went to the penalty box for holding and the Rangers finally took advantage. Frank Vatrano blasted a shot past Vasilevskiy to tie the game at one with less than seven minutes left in regulation. The Rangers had the momentum and were feeling good about themselves. “Make it 1-1 late in the third, you’re obviously thinking you’ve got a shot,” Adam Fox said.
The joy of tying the game did not last long as Tampa Bay retook the lead just 21 seconds later.
Nikita Kucherov and Stamkos skated in on a two on one. Kucherov fed Stamkos on the left side and the Lightning captain put a shot on Shesterkin who got a glove on it, but couldn’t control the puck. Stamkos kept going and had the puck glance off his body and past the Ranger goaltender who claimed he was interfered with. The goal stood and the Lightning had the lead at 13:28 of the third period.
“We battled hard, we tied the game on a pp goal,” Gallant said. “They come down on a 2 on 1, they got a goal
Before the game, Gallant made a controversial roster move by making Kappo Kakko a healthy scratch and dressing fourth line forward Dryden Hunt. The move kinda backfired when Ryan Strome left the game in the second period and did not return. Gallant refused comment when asked about the move during the game by ESPN’s Emily Kaplan and then after the game by the beat reporters.
Tampa Bay outshot the Rangers 30-21 but that’s a very misleading stat because the Lightning were the dominant team and Shesterkin’s play kept the game close. “They’re a big, big defensive team. They make it tough on you,” Gallant said.
The Rangers can deny it all they want but they were a tired team having played 20 games in 40 days. Mika Zibanejad would not us fatigue as an excuse. “There’s no fatigue,” he said. “These are the games we all want to play. Felt like we got enough rest between the games, it had nothing to do with fatigue
For the Rangers, it was a bitter end to what was a very successful season. According to some pundits, the Rangers were not a playoff team going into the season but here they are, winning two rounds and coming within two wins of the Final.
The future looks bright but at this moment in time, the hurt of losing will sting for awhile.