Lightning’s Budaj Strikes Down Rangers

LIGHTNING 3, RANGERS 2

With a little Bolt here and a big Bolt there, Tampa Bay’s enigmatic hockey club is desperately trying to re-find the formula that inspired many of hockey’s Learned Ones last fall to list them as Stanley Cup contenders.

Then again, in order to contend for Lord Stanley’s mug, a team must first make the playoffs. Backup goalie Peter Budaj sure is taking care of his end to help.

When Jon Cooper’s Lightning skated on to The Garden ice last night, they were on the outside trying to deduce just how to get back in as the regular season rapidly winds down to a finish.

So, while the Rangers can afford a loss here and there, these Floridians must fight for every point in every game; which is precisely what they did, beating New York, 3-2.

Even more surprising than goalie Budaj’s game-stealing was that little-known rookie center Brayden Point scored twice, including the game-winner late in the third period.

That would not seem to be easy; not with the normally excellent Antti Raanta guarding the pipes.

But The Fine Finn’s magic was missing, while Budaj — dealt from Los Angeles at the trade deadline — showed why the Lightning brass had no qualms about unloading ex-hero, Ben Bishop.

Budaj steadfastly kept the visitors in the game when New York outshot the Bolts, 20-9, in the first period. From there on, he merely held his own and would not allow New York the go-ahead goal in the final frame.

Despite a strong start and many quality shots in the first period, the Rangers could only manage one goal, and they went on to lose 3-2 to Tampa Bay.

More importantly, with the score knotted at 2-2 in the third, it was Point, who turned hero.

The 20-year-old center who skated for the Moose Jaw Junior team last season, split the Marc StaalRyan McDonagh defensive tandem to beat Raanta and put Tampa Bay in the lead to stay.

OVERVIEW: There are nights when some teams — by dint of sheer desperation — rise to the occasion and that helps explain the final result. Budaj proved that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was right to unload Bishop, while the much-travelled Slovak, Budaj, took over the crease and has been superb when needed.

WHAT WENT WRONG:

1. OVERWHELMING SHOTS, NOT ENOUGH GOALS: When a club like the Rangers outshoots the opposition by a ton in the first period, and skaters such as Chris Kreider seem to roam with impunity, it figures that the Blueshirts would soar to victory. Not so, because the likes of Jimmy Vesey and Kreider couldn’t capitalize on delicious chances, particularly in the opening 20 minutes when the Bolts were vulnerable.

2. PETER PREVAILS: When the Kings sent Budaj to Tampa Bay, the LA brass forgot that the Slovakian puck-stopper saved the Kings for most of the season. With Jonathan Quick sidelined, it was Budaj who kept LA alive. Now, he might help save the Lightning.

3. PUCK-WATCHING, NOT GETTING: On all three Lightning goals, the Rangers were guilty of too much watching and not enough intercepting of the enemy.

TURNING POINT: Brayden Point, selected 79th overall in the 2014 Entry Draft, bisected the veteran McDonagh-Staal defense at a decisive point in the third period. Point’s goal, at a time when the game could have gone either way, finished the Blueshirts. After all, that was the winner.

BEST SAVE: Budaj outright robbed Kreider in the first period after the Ranger tried a forehand-backhand move. Peter pilfered Chris with a sprawling job worthy of the Lincoln Center Ballet.

WHAT THEY SAID:

1. MSG NETWORKS ANALYST JOHN GIANNONE: “The Rangers were shooting for rebounds, but Budaj didn’t give them many.”

2. DEREK STEPAN: “We put a strong game together, but it just wasn’t strong enough. They capitalized on their chances and we did not.”

3. ANTTI RAANTA: “This was a tough way to lose. There were not too many shots taken at me and on all three goals they scored, I could have done something a bit different to stop them. We had the keys to win, but just didn’t use them.”

4. ALAIN VIGNEAULT: “There’s no doubt, but that in the second and third periods, we didn’t play well enough to get a win.”

COMING ATTRACTIONS: Vigneault will have plenty of time for drawing board work. The Blueshirts next game isn’t until Friday night when they host the equally playoff-desperate Florida Panthers. Game Time, 7 PM. TV: MSG Networks.

BOTTOM LINE: The best goalies “steal” games. And while Budaj may not be in the Carey Price-Henrik Lundqvist class, he sure stole one last night. By contrast, Antti Raanta faced significantly fewer shots and allowed three, including the all-important late game-winner.

In this game, at least, advantage Budaj — and Bolts!