Like a playground see-saw, the Eastern Conference Final is swinging back and forth. Now, it’s swung in the Rangers’ favor, thanks to Friday night’s 5-1 win in Florida, tying this thrilling series at two wins apiece.
The Blueshirts can thank Henrik Lundqvist, who rebounded with a 38-save masterpiece worthy of a King; which he is.
“I wanted to be both aggressive and relaxed,” said Lundqvist. “The second period (outshot by Tampa Bay 19-6) was key for me. It was such an important win for us.”
On Sunday night at The Garden, the Blueshirts could turn home ice into a strategic “advantage” and put a three-games-to-two lock on the series.
Based on past performances — such as Game 2 at MSG — it will be a confounding challenge. The reason, obviously, is that the Lightning do not comprise a collection of Humptys nor Dumptys for that matter.
“Our goaltender stood up and made a stand,” said Alain Vigneault. “We played real good in the first and the third; and did what we had to do.
“There was no doubt within our dressing room about Hank. He gave us a chance to win.”
The key, as we look to Sunday’s Game 5, is that the Lightning offensive has been rebuffed and Happy Face signs have surfaced on the Seventh Avenue horizon.
What more could be cause for more cartwheels of joy than Rick Nash scoring twice and Martin St. Louis getting one — as they did on Friday — and then continuing their offensive thrusts through Sunday?
Or, the Blueshirts busting a 1-1 second-period tie with a pair of goals — Chris Kreider and Keith Yandle — only a minute and forty-eight seconds apart.
Or five goals for the Seventh Avenue Skaters on only 18 shots by which time the game was out of Tampa Bay’s reach.
And if the following positive points are carried forward into Game 5 an even stronger Rangers momentum will have been developed. Consider these:
- RED-HOT HENRIK: The King’s bounce-back qualities were evident as he allowed his defense to bend but Lundqvist never broke. Although the Rangers were out-shot by a ton, Lundqvist prevailed with a number of outstanding saves.
- NOTABLE NASH: The Big Fella’s confidence should hit a new high after his strong game on the road with a timely opening goal and the second one later to further bolster his confidence.
- OFFENSIVE (TO BOLTS) RANGERS OFFENSE: Starting in the opening period, the Rangers out skated what’s billed as the fastest offense in the East. After Tampa Bay tied the game, New York broke through with a pair of second-period goals, enabling the visitors to enter the third period with a two-goal cushion. Then, they built a fat cushion on that.
- SPECIAL TEAMS: The Lightning’s once-vaunted power play was reduced to just vaunt. Meanwhile, the Blueshirts built a cushion on a pair of power-play red lights.
- SUBTRACTING THE TRIPLETS: Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson both blew excellent chances with the game still 0-0 in the first period. By the end of the game none of them had scored.
- DEFENSE WITH A CAPITAL D: Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and friends survived the early enemy blitz while Yandle was superior on offense.
Minus the injured Matt Carle, the Tampa defense was inferior.
THE QUOTE THAT SUMS UP THE RANGERS WIN:
“We wanted to make sure to give ourselves a chance to go back to New York in a two-two series,” said Derek Stepan. “We had to get back to the Rangers hockey that we had success with all year.”
Easily the most significant flaw exposed by the Blueshirts was in the home team’s goal. Ben Bishop, at best is an average goaltender, and was considerably below the standard set by Lundqvist on Friday night.
No less meaningful was the New Yorkers ability to thwart the Bolts’ Triplet Line while holding Steve Stamkos to one goal. And that goal faded in importance once the Rangers went ahead to stay late in the second period.
Barring an upset, the Blueshirts should seize on the momentum built in the Southland and exploit home ice before what surely will be a tumultuous Garden crowd.
“It was a huge comeback,” Nash asserted. “On my first goal, I just wanted to go to the net. Look, it’s a help to be there offensively. I’ve been trying to go to the net as a priority to my game.
“The big thing in the second period was the way Hank played. We have to work for our opportunities on Sunday.”
If the Rangers play Game 5 the way they scored in Games 3 and 4, the see saw will remain on the New York side. Ten goals in two games; not bad.
“Sometimes you get chances,” concluded St. Louis. “Now we just have to move forward.”
Ditto for the see saw!
BEST, WORST AND MOST UNUSUAL — FROM START TO FINISH:
- BEST FIRST CHANCE: Nikita Kucherov missed the Rangers cage while all alone in front. He shot a rolling puck over the net.
- BEST RANGERS STRATEGY: They outhit the Bolts on regular basis.
- WORST MISS: On a Bolts power play, ace Tyler Johnson hit the post.
- BEST FIRST PENALTY KILL: Rangers succeeded in stopping Tampa Bay PP after Johnson’s big chance.
- BEST RICK NASH ATTEMPTS: The Big Guy had two successive shots forcing Ben Bishop into a pair of big saves. It was the portent of good Nash things to come.
- BEST PRESSURE: Rangers executed an impressive cycle with five minutes left in the opening period.
- MOST UNUSUAL: No Lightning shots were delivered in the last five minutes of the period.
- BEST NASH GOAL: He out hustled the last Tampa defender and backhanded a shot off the right post for his first of the series.
- BEST EARLY START: Ryan Callahan’s forechecking led to a Rangers penalty.
- WORST STARTS OF POWER PLAYS: Tampa was very sloppy for the second straight man advantage. It almost led to a Rangers shorthander. Immediately after that Nash almost scored; again on the backhander. Again, during Chris Kreider penalty, Bolts fumbled away another PP chance.
- BEST SAVES BY LUNDQVIST: He stopped Alex Killorn on the power play breakaway. He followed that with another close call diving save against Nikita Kucherov. Then he beat Killorn again.
- MOST UNUSUAL SCORE COMPARED TO GAME 3: Rangers nursed a shutout well into the half-way point in the contest.
- BEST PENALTY KILLING: Rangers foiled every Lightning power play.
- BEST DEFENSIVE PLAY BY AN OFFENSIVE DEFENSEMAN: Keith Yandle made a sliding save on what almost was a Lightning goal.
- BEST RE-AWAKENING: Steve Stamkos scored to tie the game after a heavy press by the Bolts. That made it 12 points in his last nine games. After that, Stamkos virtually disappeared.
- BEST ANSWER TO BOLTS RE-AWAKENING: Chris Kreider put the Rangers ahead after Brendan Morrow’s terrible clearing attempt failed. That’ was followed by a deflection of a Yandle shot that bounced off Victor Hedman’s leg past Bishop late in the second. Two goals in less than two minutes torpedoed the Lightning.
- MOST UNUSUAL: Nobody beefed about the officiating until the third period.
- BEST DEFENSIVE START: Rangers resisted a heavy Tampa Bay attack in the first four minutes of the third period.
- BEST RANGERS RESULT: Final score — New York 5, Tampa Bay 1.