Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Rangers allowed only 20 goals in 12 games against the Penguins and Capitals, an average of 1.67 against. They played a stifling defensive game, largely frustrating stars like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. They kept gaps tight and limited chances in close on goalie Henrik Lundqvist, keeping the game scores low and close. But sometime in the last 72 hours, their game seems to have disappeared, replaced by one that has been overwhelmed by the Lightning’s offensive punch.
For the second straight game, New York gave up six goals and though the Blueshirts scored five and forced overtime they lost 3:33 into the extra session on Wednesday night at Tampa‘s Amalie Arena. When Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov cut into the middle of the ice largely unchallenged, he snapped a wrister by Lundqvist that the goalie said he just did not pick up.
“I was just late reacting,” Lundqvist said in a postgame interview. “It’s a tough one. The whole game was really challenging for me—the way they move the puck and find open ice in the slot for scoring chances right in front. I just need to dig deep here and try to be more consistent with my game plan… I have to be better. Obviously we’re not going to win if I give up six goals.”
Including the regular season, Lundqvist has now given up 27 goals to Tampa Bay and has a .840 save percentage in those six games (his record: 1-5). Though he made some quality stops, including a J.T. Brown breakaway chance just before Kucherov scored the game-winner, Lundqvist has looked more intimidated than intimidator in this series. The quick, pinpoint passing plays that the Lightning execute so well have made the goalie second-guess himself or play too conservatively at times. And the Rangers defensemen have allowed Tampa Bay to stake out ground in the high-percentage areas.
The biggest threats in that area were once again the Lightning’s dynamic line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Kucherov, nicknamed the Triplets. Though with every passing game and every passing game-winner produced by this impressive trio, they’d be better called the Triumvirate. Johnson starred in Game 2, netting a hat trick in Tampa’s 6–2 win, and again on Wednesday, finishing with a goal and an assist on the night. But his linemates have been equally impressive.
Palat, who Lightning coach Jon Cooper called a “giant amongst men out there,” does the oft-overlooked work—clearing pucks out of Tampa’s zone, getting into New York’s zone cleanly, working the boards and being aware defensively around the net—that has made that line so successful. And in Game 3, he was rewarded handsomely for his work, scoring two goals and an assist in his first career three-point playoff game. Kucherov, who also had an assist on the night, hasn’t had a minus game since Game 4 against Montreal, and his hard, quick release on the game-winner likely had something to do with Lundqvist’s inability to pick it up.
“There are not a lot of guys that can score from there,” Cooper said during his postgame press conference. “We just happen to have a few of them on our team.”
Indeed, the last two games have just showcased an embarrassment of riches for Tampa Bay. Here we are, more than 500 words into a column, and we have yet to even address star center Steven Stamkos. And that is not because of some Rick Nash-ian vanishing act. Unlike the Rangers’ (once upon a time) scoring winger, Stamkos has shown up, delivered and given individual efforts that seem to lift his team. After unloading a big hit on New York winger Kevin Hayes early in Game 3, Stamkos put Tampa Bay on the board midway through the first period. Muscling the puck away from Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle, he created a 2-on-1 break with Johnson, burying a rebound to cut New York’s early two-goal lead in half.
“Stammer’s more than just a scorer,” Cooper said. “He’s really committed to playing the 200 feet of the ice. You see [his hit on Hayes], it brought our whole bench up… I think that kind of triggered a lot of our physicality when your captain dives in there and does stuff like that.”
Tampa Bay out-hit New York, 41-33, and with some of that extra physicality came penalties. And if there is one positive takeaway for New York, it may have been its power play, which went two-for-four on Wednesday night. For all the attention the Lightning’s power play has gotten (and deservedly so), it should also be noted that New York’s unit has awakened since Game 7 of the previous round against Washington. With Derick Brassard’s opening goal on Wednesday night, the Rangers have scored with the man advantage in four of their last five games and converted on six of their last 18 opportunities. Still, it was small consolation.
“Some games just unfold differently,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said after the loss. But unfortunately for the Blueshirts, it seems that Tampa Bay’s game is unfolding quite the same and that's bad news for New York and its goaltender.