The smell of Stanley Cup champagne remains six wins away for the Rangers.
And that ain’t good.
The other indisputable fact is that to reach that playoff plateau, there’s a matter of beating the Lightning two more times.
And that ain’t good either.
While the Blueshirts have proven to be comeback kids before, their task on Tuesday night at Amalie Arena has suddenly moved into the do-or-die category now that Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop has refound his game, blanking New York, 2-0, on Sunday night at The Garden.
Alas, the Bolts can close out the Eastern Conference Final at home. Then again, one can say the Rangers are just where they want to be; facing elimination so that they can execute one of the traditional breathless comebacks.
That’s because the Lightning won’t go away quietly, despite being heavily outplayed in the first half of Game 5. But the key Bolts hung tough and Bishop’s ability to rebound was as good as it had to be.
“We bent in the first half of the game,” explained Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, “but we didn’t break.”
Undaunted, the New Yorkers now must do what, historically, they’ve done so well before — counterattack and win. They did it last spring when down 1-3 in games to the Pittsburgh Penguins and this playoff campaign when they rallied from a similar deficit against the Washington Capitals.
“We have no other choice,” said defenseman Dan Girardi. “If we lose, we’re done. We have no other game to save it for; and I don’t think that this [Game 5] there was a lack in our play; just a few things need to clean up.”
Thing Number One that needs immediate sanitizing is the Rangers’ power play, which went oh-for-four. Meanwhile, the Lightning made good on one of three power-play opportunities. Stamkos got the goal with man advantage for Tampa Bay at 18:22 of the middle frame, while Valtteri Filppula had the opening goal for the visitors at 13:29.
“Our penalty kill took the air out of them,” said Stamkos. “They responded just as [Bishop] responded.”
Based on the Rangers’ first-period domination in every area but goal-scoring, it was difficult to imagine that the Blueshirts would fail to eventually find a lamplighter.
“We created enough to get a couple of goals,” said Rangers backliner Marc Staal. “Then they come down on a rush and took the lead from us. It happens.”
It happened on the first goal because Tanner Glass overplayed a Tampa stretch pass and got caught too high in the neutral zone. Bolts defender — ex-Ranger — Anton Stralman banked his pass off the boards on to Stamkos’ stick. The winning goal further developed when the captain fed Filppula in the slot. His shot banked off the post making it virtually impossible for Henrik Lundqvist to make the save.
“We’ve had a lot of good second periods,” Filppula observed. “This time we got a couple and played with the lead.”
The pendulum emphatically swung the Lightning’s way from that goal onwards. While the Rangers generated offense after the Bolts’ goals, the New York attackers were cut off at the pass.
“They had better numbers,” added Staal, “and they were blocking shots. We had a hard time getting shots through to Bishop.”
After the Rangers’ 5-1 triumph in Florida, it appeared that the stage was set for New York to grab a stranglehold on the series; especially after both Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis together scored three goals between them– two for Nash — in Tampa Bay.
Neither of the pair did anything in the way of adding momentum and were virtually negated by the tenacious Bolts checking. Finding an outstanding Rangers forward was difficult after the first period.
“The Lightning did a good job of defending,” said Alain Vigneault. “Our power play had been getting us some momentum, but it was slow [Sunday] and that hurt it.
“On Tuesday, we have to play our best game of the year and execute. We went after them in the first period. We were trying to get open ice and I have to give [the Lightning] a lot of credit.”
AV can start his crediting with the Bolts’ penalty-killers, who dominated every combination the Rangers threw into the fray against Bishop.
“For us,” Bishop insisted, “the penalty kill came up huge. Obviously, we weren’t happy with the last few games. The penalty kill [Sunday] kept us in it.”
WHAT THE BLUESHIRTS NEED TO DO TO STAY ALIVE IN THE SERIES TUESDAY:
- SPECIAL TEAMS MUST IMPROVE:
On both the power play and penalty kill, the Rangers must do better. Their power play could not convert and the Lightning scored on their man advantage. A repeat of Tampa’s Sunday special-team advantage could block the Rangers’ road to the Final round.
- BOTHER BISHOP:
After looking shaky and allowing five goals in Game 4, Bishop appeared calm and confident. The Blueshirts only mustered 26 shots and most of them were from the outside. For a different result, they will need to crowd the big goalie’s crease and force him to look around screens.
- BIG PLAYERS HAVE TO PLAY BIGGER:
Nash and St. Louis were sadly silent and the oft-dangerous Chris Kreider was neutralized in Game 5. The Rangers’ biggest offensive players will have to produce when their team needs them most. And that goes for Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard and Kevin Hayes have to emerge from the Sunday cocoon and score.
- DEFENSE NEEDS TO STAND UP AT THE BLUE LINE:
The Floridians have generated offense by carrying the puck into the offensive zone and then making a cross-ice pass. If the Rangers’ defense can stop that play, the Tampa offense will be deflated.
- GET OFF TO A GOOD START:
At big moments in the playoffs, the Rangers have scored early and seized momentum. Playing in front of the Lightning’s home crowd, it will be imperative to get off to a good start and take the home-ice advantage away from Tampa.
“I have a lot of faith and trust in my players,” Vigneault concluded. “I’m confident we’ll be ready for it.”
Hey, all the Blueshirts need are two wins.
The solution to that can be found in the same game plan that enabled the series wins over Pittsburgh in 2014 and Washington this Spring.
Or, the theme, We did it before and we can do it again — and we will do it again!
THE BEST, WORST AND MOST UNUSUAL
- WORST MISSED OPPORTUNITY OF THE FIRST PERIOD:
Just minutes into the game, St. Louis had two clean chances to score; he was first foiled by a bouncing puck while Bishop smothered the second attempt.
- BEST SHIFT OF THE FIRST PERIOD:
At the 15-minute mark, the Rangers’ fourth line kept the Bolts pinned in their own zone for nearly a minute. They could only break the pressure by icing the puck, forcing Jon Cooper to burn his time out.
- BEST TEAM IN THE OPENING FRAME:
The score board may have read 0-0 after one, but the Rangers looked better than their opponents in all situations. They outshot the Lightning 6-4 and carried most of the play.
- WORST POWER-PLAY ATTEMPT:
The Bolts were totally disorganized and the Rangers had better threats than Tampa.
- FIRST-PERIOD CONCLUSION:
The Rangers’ attack was consistently coordinated and sharp. Blueshirts controlled the boards in the Tampa zone and in their own. Lightning’s attempt to clear their zone were often blunted by the Rangers. The only Rangers minus; they went 0-for-2 on power plays.
- BEST SECOND-PERIOD SAVE:
Barely two minutes after the intermission, Keith Yandle turned the puck over in his own end; Stamkos corralled the biscuit in the slot, only for his wrister to be snagged by Lundqvist’s glove
- MOST UNUSUAL NON-CALL OF THE SECOND:
About four minutes into the stanza, both Dominic Moore and Ryan Callahan high-sticked each other. The play was blown dead, but neither player was penalized.
- MOST CONSPICUOUS ABSENCE
Despite surging in the past three games, the Blueshirts’ power play was silent on four attempts in the first two periods. To make matters worse, the Lightning found the back of the net on their second man-advantage of the game.
- BEST PASS OF THE MIDDLE PERIOD:
With 13 minutes gone in the frame, Stralman banked the puck off the boards into the path of Stamkos. He then fed Filppula, who beat Lundqvist for the game’s first goal.
- SECOND-PERIOD CONCLUSION: Rangers dominated the first half but had nothing to show for it. Tampa Bay proved opportunistic on both goals although Rangers led on total shots on goal for two periods, 16-15 Rangers. But the Bolts came on stronger in the period.
- BEST SHOT-BLOCKING EFFORT:
With the Rangers chasing the game in the second half of the final frame, both Callahan and Brian Boyle threw themselves in front of Rangers shooters to protect their goaltender.
- BEST SAVE OF THE THIRD PERIOD:
When the Rangers were throwing everything at Bishop in the final five minutes of the stanza, Nikita Kucherov launched a counter-attack; he nearly ended the game, but Lundqvist denied his wrist shot.
- BEST VIGNEAULT ANSWER TO WHAT IT TAKES TO WIN TWO IN A ROW:
“Both teams are looking for that answer.”