Henrik Lundqvist rebounded from the worst back-to-back games of his career and Rick Nash scored a pair of goals to lead the New York Rangers to a decisive 5-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final Friday night. With the win, the Rangers tied the series at two games apiece. Game 5 is set for Sunday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Here are three quick thoughts in the aftermath of this Sunshine State stunner:
1. The Rangers' big guns finally made a mark
The relief was palpable after Nash and Martin St. Louis broke their extended scoring slumps.
"It's frustrating when you can't help your team out offensively when you're supposed to score goals," Nash told NBCSN's Brian Engblom after the game. "It's not going in, you feel like you're letting your team down. But I'm trying to help out in any area I can and tonight, finally, a couple went in."
Nash opened the scoring in the first with the sort of goal he made look easy in the regular season. Taking advantage of a breakdown in Tampa's coverage that left winger Cedric Paquette as the sole defender, Nash bulled his way to the net and beat Ben Bishop was a slick backhand that kissed the far post before sliding across the line.
His second wasn't as pretty, or as important in the scheme of things, but it was the sort of effort that hints at a strong finish to the series for Nash. After winning a battle for position against mammoth defender Andrej Sustr, Nash was perfectly stationed to bang a rebound of a Kevin Hayes shot through Bishop's pads. It marked the first multigoal playoff game for Nash in his 57th postseason contest.
St. Louis's goal made it 4-1 New York in the third, but it was massive for the struggling winger. He buried his first of the playoffs into a gaping cage thanks to a sweet pass from Derick Brassard.
"You know, for the past while here, they've been answering questions about their offensive production. For them to score a couple tonight for us, to finally have a little bit of breathing room here and not be one of those tight one-goal games, is obviously very positive," said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault in his postgame press conference.
It was a nice night for Keith Yandle as well. The beleaguered defender contributed a goal and a pair of assists on the night to rebound from a poor showing in Game 3.
2. The King comes through
It wasn't just the flood of goals Lundqvist allowed over the past couple games that was a concern. It was the beer-league quality. At least three chances that he ended up fishing out of the net in Game 3 should have been stopped, including Nikita Kucherov's overtime tally.
“When you give up 12 goals in two games, of course you’re going to question some things, but I’m confident in the team and in myself,” Lundqvist said after the morning skate. “I think the key is not to change my game. I know being okay isn’t going to be good enough at this point.”
He was better than okay. Lundqvist's 38 saves ended a nightmarish stretch of hockey for the all-world keeper and salvaged a win on a night when his defense committed far too many turnovers and blew coverage too many times.
He caught a couple of breaks early—Tyler Johnson and Kucherov missed the net on wide-open chances down low—but then Lundqvist began to assert himself. His best stop came early in the second when he stoned a power play breakaway bid by Alex Killorn to preserve the 1-0 lead. Later in the frame, he flicked his paddle to poke the puck away from Nikita Nesterov just as the Lightning defender was swooping across the crease toward the open side. The one goal he did allow, Steven Stamkos's third in three games, was an uncontested one-timer from the left hashmark that banked in off the far post. Pretty much unstoppable.
“There was a lot of talk about him and his play, but there wasn't any doubt in our dressing room,” Vigneault said.
Safe to say there won't be any “Start Cam Talbot” talk ahead of Game 5.
3. The result was not indicative of the effort
“People are going to wake up in the morning and look at the box score and say, 'Oh wow, Tampa got waxed,'” Tampa coach Jon Cooper said. “But if you were in the building, you probably didn't see it that way.”
He's right. In so many ways, this was the game that Tampa wanted to play. After quelling an early push from the Rangers, the Bolts took control of the contest. They used their speed and passing to create chances off the rush–the 150-foot pass by Victor Hedman to send Killorn in on his first breakaway was saucy–and forced the Rangers into the same retreat mode that cost them Game 3.
"We had our looks," Cooper said. "Could you ask for anything more in the first five minutes than to have Kucherov and Johnson by themselves in front of the net? One we blow wide and one we hit off the cross bar. Things like that happen."
The bad breaks kept coming. While Tampa completely dominated the second period, outshooting the Blueshirts 19-6, it was the Rangers who got the bounces. Chris Kreider capitalized on an unforced turnover behind the Lightning net by Brenden Morrow, banging a rebound through Bishop's wickets at 15:16 of the period. Just 1:48 later, a Keith Yandle shot that appeared to be going well wide of the net bounced off the inside of Hedman's leg and into the open side of the net.
"It's tough to have a period like we did in the second period," Cooper said. "Nine times out of 10, you're coming out with the lead probably by multiple goals. Instead you come out of that [and] you lose the period. It doesn't happen very often."
If the Bolts come up with another effort like that on Sunday, they'll give themselves a chance to win ... as long as Bishop doesn't give it away.
His teammates were quick to defend him, but there has to be some concern heading into Game 5. Bishop has allowed 10 goals on last 52 shots he's faced, a dismal .808 save percentage. Maybe he bounces back on Sunday much like Lundqvist did in this one, but you have to think the leash will be short.