NEW YORK — After Games 2, 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference finals saw 25 goals scored between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers, Sunday’s Game 5 was a low-scoring affair like the one that started the series.
In the Lightning’s 2–0 victory over the Rangers, Tampa Bay showed that it, too, is capable of winning a close, tight-checking game.
“Our game is defensive-first,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. “I know you guys haven’t seen a lot of it, but we definitely stepped our game up tonight. We took care of our own end before we went on offense and that’s when we play our best.”
The low-scoring game has tended to be one the Rangers have favored this postseason. They’ve allowed two goals or fewer in 13 of their 17 playoff games. On Sunday, the Lightning played to that type of game, and Lightning coach Jon Cooper said that if his team has “any chance of winning, that’s how [they] have to do it.”
“You look at the way sometimes you get caught up, and we did, judging our game on how many scoring chances we get, and really you should judge your game on how many you give up,” Cooper said.
On Sunday night, the Lightning attempted only 22 shots on goal, which is tied for the fewest the Rangers have allowed in one game this postseason, and Tampa Bay’s lowest total of the series. The first period didn’t see much offense, though New York did spend a lot of time in the offensive zone, and only allowed four shots on goal.
“It's not how many you score,” Cooper said. “It's how many you keep out of the net. And the boys committed to defense tonight.”
The Rangers noticed that switch had been flipped, particularly the Lightning’s focus and execution of blocking shots. Tampa Bay blocked 24 shots on the night, which was not only its highest total in the series, but also more than the number of shots it took in the victory.
“It’s something we haven’t seen the first four games and they did a good job of getting in lanes,” New York’s Dan Girardi said. “We’re attempting a lot of them, we’ve just got find a way to get them through.
“They had a lot of layers to them. The first guy would come at you, get right in the lane. You get it by that guy, and then there’s another guy in front of the net that’s trying to block it. They did a really good job of that tonight. We just have to find a way to get it past that first guy, and hopefully get that puck to the net.”
The Lightning’s defense also came through on the penalty kill, which has been a challenge in the previous three games, as they had allowed two power play goals in each of Games 2 through 4. On Sunday night, they were able to reverse that trend. Cooper, who said his challenge to his team before the game was winning the special teams battle, called the strong penalty kill “the whole key to the game.”
In the second period, the Rangers had two almost consecutive man advantages and couldn’t convert. On the first, the power play unit was outshot 2-1, and on the second that came just 32 seconds after Tampa Bay was back to even strength, the Rangers managed just one shot on net. Cooper called those kills the “turning point” in the game. Less than two minutes later, Lightning forward Valtteri Filppula scored the first goal of the game. New York finished the game 0 for 4 on the power play.
“I really thought it kind of sucked a little bit of the momentum away from them, and then we scored after that,” Cooper said. “It was almost like we may have popped the bubble a little bit. I thought we got stronger after that.”
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault noted that the power play had been giving his team momentum, and that on Sunday, New York’s “execution was a little bit slow,” which “made it easier for [Tampa Bay] to defend.”
Now the Rangers face elimination once again, a familiar situation. In their previous series against Washington, they were down 3-1 before winning three straight to take close out the Capitals. It was the second time in two years they had accomplished that feat, after coming back from 3-1 last season against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Because of his team’s history in win-or-go-home games, Girardi said “there’s no reason to panic. We’ve got another chance here to save our season, and come Tuesday, we just have to give it everything we have.”
Added Vigneault, “I have a lot of faith and trust in my players. They know how to prepare and they know how to get ready for games. For us this year, there is no bigger game than the next one. So I’m confident that we’re going to be ready for it.”
The Lightning are aware of the Rangers’ recent history in elimination games, and forward Steven Stamkos said Tampa Bay needs to stay focused after the emotional victory it secured on Sunday night.
“[The Rangers are] a resilient group,” Stamkos said. “We've seen that all series. We've seen that all year. They're the best team in the regular season for a reason.
“We understand the magnitude of the next game, and we're going to get their best game, there is no question about it. We got that in Game 4, and we saw the response they had … We need to find a way as a group to not just match that but give even more. I think it's that time where we have to learn how to play after a big, emotional win, and come out and be even better. So we're looking forward to that challenge.”