It's time for the Rangers to reveal themselves.
Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Friday night at Amalie Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA) stacks up not only as a referendum on their playoff identity, but also as a near must-win for the Presidents’ Trophy winners.
Is New York the team that’s had its defense and goaltending exposed after allowing six goals in consecutive losses to the high-flying Lightning? Or is it something closer to the one that allowed nine total goals in its previous six games combined?
Despite coach Alain Vigneault’s assertions that the Bolts “aren’t dictating” the pace of the series, it’s pretty clear that that’s exactly what’s happened in the last two games. The Rangers may be fast, but Tampa Bay has been faster, more insistent on the attack and far more creative. The Lightning are seizing New York’s zone. They’re scoring off the rush. And the Rangers are all but waving hello as they breeze by.
Tampa Bay has put them on their heels with breakouts and speed through the neutral zone. It’s easy to blame New York’s defense for not slowing the Lightning down, but much of the problem has been in the failings of the Rangers’ forwards to get back and take away Tampa Bay’s numeric advantages. Instead of mucking it up, as they did so effectively in their 2–1 Game 1 victory, New York’s defensemen have too often been forced to fall back and allow the Bolts entry into Rangers’ end. The lack of aggression on the part of New York’s forwards is putting too much pressure on goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who looked shaky while facing 40 shots in a 6–5 Game 3 loss.
The All-Star keeper clearly has to find a way to get over the mental hump of his past two beatings. He’s has allowed 12 goals on just 66 shots in the two losses, including the very stoppable 30-foot wrister from Nikita Kucherov that ended Game 3 in overtime. Before Game 2 against Tampa, Lundqvist had given up just 21 goals on 379 shots in his previous 13 games.
The Rangers’ goalie has to be better, but he also needs some help. The Bolts are playing fearlessly in New York’s end, planting themselves in Lundqvist’s crease with impunity. It’s hard to figure out how that’s happening. The Rangers seemed to have had an easier time handling the Capitals’ husky marauders than have Tampa Bay’s undersized Triplets. Part of that might be from fear of taking penalties. It’s a reasonable concern. The Lightning have at least one power-play goal in each of the three games of this series and have scored a total of five in the postseason. Staying out of the box makes good sense, but so does clearing the crease to eliminate scoring threats at five-on-five. New York needs to walk that fine line between discipline and destruction or Tampa Bay will continue to light the lamp.
Yes, the Rangers beat Ben Bishop for five goals in Game 3, but does that in any way feel like something they can replicate moving forward? Why would they even want to try? New York had just 28 shots on net in that loss. Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis continue to fire blanks. J.T. Miller has been the most dangerous player on the first line. Young guns Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes combined for zero shots and were non-factors in Game 3.
For the Rangers to get back in this series, it will need to batten down the hatches. Tighten the gaps. Blanket the neutral zone with tire strips. Turn the front of their net into a punishing no-man’s land.
It won’t be pretty, but that’s the sum of it. If they can’t muck the game up on Friday night, they will be going home in 3–1 series hole.
The numbers game
• The Lightning have scored six goals in consecutive playoff games for the first time in franchise history. The Rangers have not lost three straight games since Nov. 13-17 (0-1-2). They also have won each of their past three series when trailing 2-1 after three games (2015 SR vs. WSH, 2014 SR vs. PIT and 2013 CQF vs. WSH).WSH, 2014 SR vs. PIT and 2013 CQF vs. WSH).
• Ryan Getzlaf, who leads the league in playoff assists (14 in 12 games) this year, is the first player in Ducks history to have five multi-assist games in one postseason. Bruins forward David Krejci, with five in 22 games in 2013, was the last NHL player to have as many as five.
• Patrick Kane needs one more postseason goal to pass Steve Larmer (45) for sole possession of fourth in Blackhawks history. Ahead lie only Bobby Hull (62), Denis Savard (61) and Stan Mikita (59).
• Mike Babcock couldn’t leave Detroit without saying thanks to Red Wings fans.
• Love these one-off jerseys that the Quebec Remparts will wear for tonight’s Memorial Cup opener.
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