Though they were facing the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, and though that they had needed seven games to advance from each of the primary two rounds of the playoffs, the Rangers at all times had a trump card of their pocket: Fortress Madison Square Garden.
Even after losing two games in Tampa to permit the Lightning to tie the series, there was an unshakable sense of confidence in Rangerland coming into Game 5. In spite of everything, the team was 8-1 at home within the playoffs, its only loss coming in triple time beyond regulation within the very first game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
So when the Lightning ended the magic with a 3-1 victory on the Garden on Thursday night, it was a hammer blow. And all of the more frustrating because the important thing Tampa goals got here not entirely from the ability trio of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, but additionally from an unlikely defenseman taking a few low-percentage shots.
The Rangers began the night promisingly. Seemingly infused with energy from their venerable arena, they played from the opening face-off with an authority and crispness missing in Tampa. The pace was fast, and the primary period was free-flowing and penalty free.
Disquietingly for the Rangers, who clearly had the upper hand, it was also goal free. Recent York fired off eight shots, and Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy saved all of them. His counterpart Igor Shesterkin was called upon to avoid wasting just three. And this got here from a Rangers team that had been outshot, 153-127, in the primary 4 games.
The Lightning at times within the early going looked less just like the two-time defending champions and more like a team awed by the occasion. Each time (and there have been many) that there was a face-off within the Lightning end, there was the sense that this could be the moment the Rangers finally broke through.
But dominance doesn’t count unless you rating a goal. The Rangers finally got theirs at 10:29 of the second period not from dominance, but almost from happenstance. Defenseman Ryan Lindgren scored for his first point of the series and second goal of the playoffs via a speculative flick from near the boards that perhaps was intended for a deflection. As an alternative it went in.
But when Recent York expected that drawing first blood would crack the sport open, it was mistaken. A one-goal lead is a slender reed, even on the Garden. Tampa Bay’s answer got here at 17:34 of the second, and it was one way or the other much more unlikely.
Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev scored his first goal of the playoffs. It too was unassisted: a high shot nearly from the blue line that sailed waist-high past a minimum of three Rangers in addition to Corey Perry of the Lightning camped within the crease, then most significantly Shesterkin, who could do nothing.
Besides equalizing the rating, the visitors had chipped away on the Rangers’ pre-eminence. After the second period, the gap in shots was gone, and each goalies had made exactly 15 saves on 16 shots.
Within the frenetic third period, either side narrowly did not capitalize on breakaways and opponents’ mistakes, and the strain led to some of pushing-and-shoving scrums as well.
With 1:50 to go, Tampa delivered the coup de grâce, improbably again as Sergachev, from just contained in the blue line, sent the puck through traffic and Palat deflected it home. That sucked the life from the raucous Garden faithful, who had already been gearing up for a number of overtimes, and essentially ended the sport, though Tampa added an empty-net goal by Brandon Hagel.
A case may very well be made that this series had tipped further toward the Lightning with every game. The Rangers have scored only two goals of their last eight periods of hockey.
Game 1 was effectively a romp, with the Rangers winning, 6-2, and the Lightning seeming rusty after every week off following their sweep of the Florida Panthers within the previous round.
The Rangers won Game 2 at home, 3-2, and took a 2-0 lead in Game 3 in Tampa. But that was the high-water mark. Thirty seconds later, the Lightning scored and got here back to win 3-2. In Game 4, the Lightning dominated in a 4-1 victory. Suddenly, the series was tied.
The Rangers were counting on the house constructing and crowd on Thursday to reverse that trend, seemingly as much as they were counting on the likes of the 52-goal scorer Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin, so often the most effective players on the ice.
Kreider’s power-play prowess — he led the league in man-advantage goals — was limited by the nearly whistle-free game. The Rangers were called for just two in-game penalties and the Lightning one. (A postgame brouhaha — starring Steven Stamkos and Alexis Lafrenière — led to 6 more that were too late to impact the ultimate rating.)
“It was one in all those games; it was a defensive battle,” said Rangers coach Gerard Gallant, saying Shesterkin had been screened and never seen either the primary or second goal. “We played a sound hockey game. It’s tough to lose like that at the tip, but it surely was an excellent hockey game. It could have went either way.”
The 12 months has been a hit for the Rangers, who’re coming off a tear-down and rebuild that had led them to miss the playoffs the previous 4 seasons, and a conference final is overachievement. And despite the deflating loss, the Rangers usually are not technically dead yet.
The Rangers got here back from three-games-to-one down against the Penguins, finally winning in time beyond regulation in Game 7. They got here back twice against the Hurricanes in the following round, and won one other Game 7.
Now down three-games-to-two again, they need two straight wins. Worryingly, the primary of those on Saturday, must are available in Tampa.