Henrik Lundqvist's mastery in elimination games and defensive commitment are crucial if the New York Rangers are to avoid elimination in Game 6 of their Eastern finals series vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Here are some points to ponder as New York looks to stave off elimination:
• If the Rangers have one thing going for them tonight, it’s the stability of Henrik Lundqvist. The King struggled early in the series, but has been sharp in the last two games, allowing only three goals on 61 shots. History shines on him, too. He’s been dynamite when his team’s back has been pressed up against the wall, with a 14–3 record in New York’s last 17 elimination games to go along with a 1.39 goals-against average and a .956 save percentage. He’s been even better since the start of the 2014 playoffs, running up an 8–1 mark in elimination games with a 1.31 goals-against average and a .961 save pct.
Lundqvist has allowed two goals or fewer in 18 of his last 23 appearances. The math is simple—give him three goals of support and Hank will do the rest. If only it were that easy ...
• The difference between these two teams in the first five games? The Lightning’s best players have made a difference. The Rangers’ have not.
Tampa Bay has scored 16 goals in the series, all of which can be attributed to their top-six forwards. Steven Stamkos has scored in each of the last four games and is playing his best hockey when his team needs him most. Nikita Kucherov has six points in the series. So does Tyler Johnson. No. 1 defenseman Victor Hedman has four assists in the series. They’ve been like shark teeth. If one falls out, another is in place to continue tearing New York to shreds.
It hasn’t been so easy for the Rangers’ finest. Rick Nash was great in Game 4, but was back to settling for perimeter chances in Game 5. Martin St. Louis has one goal and should probably stand up and wave at the camera at some point so we can verify that he’s still around. Chris Kreider apparently needs to hire a Sherpa to guide him to the Lightning’s crease, and a friendly reminder that he’s at his best when he’s making the other team angry. Derick Brassard has had his moments (his Game 4 pass to St. Louis, who put it away), but they’ve been too few and too far between.
New York needs a stand-up effort from their blue line as well. The Ryan McDonagh–Dan Girardi pair has been an inconsistent answer to the Triplets of Tampa Bay. Unable to match the speed of Johnson, Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, McDonagh and Girardi need to make better reads and position themselves more smartly. Marc Staal has struggled as well, unable to unleash his physical fury on forwards he can’t quite catch.
All eyes will be on Nash in Game 5—fair or not, that’s the scrutiny that comes with the paycheck—but it’s the entire leadership of the Rangers that will also be under review tonight.
• It was clear that the Lightning needed more from Ben Bishop in Game 5 after their keeper allowed five goals in Games 3 and 4, but it was a total team effort that led to the shutout in Game 5.
The Bolts took a page out of New York’s playbook in the victory, delivering a simple but committed defensive performance that involved all five skaters. With the help of backchecking forwards, Tampa’s blueliners mostly succeeded in pushing the Rangers’ attack to the outside, forcing them to settle for low-percentage scoring chances. And when someone got into the middle of the ice, the Lightning took away shooting lanes. They blocked 24 shots in the game, more than they had in the previous two games combined (22).
It helped that Tampa Bay got on the board first when Valtteri Filppula scored off the rush at 13:29 of the second period. Once that happened, the Lightning’s poise came to the forefront while New York began forcing plays and slowly succumbed to frustration.
It’s easy to say that the first goal will be critical to Tuesday night’s result, but the more decisive factor will be defensive commitment. Whichever team brings it, and maintains it in the face of desperation, will get the W.
The numbers game
• Tampa Bay is 8–0 in this year’s playoffs when leading after two periods. The Rangers have allowed two goals or fewer in 13 of their 17 postseason games this year, including 12 of their last 15.
• The Ducks improved to 11–3 this postseason, with all three losses having come in overtime. Anaheim’s 14 straight games without a regulation loss to open the playoffs equals an NHL record set by the 1979 Rangers (also 11–3, with 3 OT losses). In 2003 the Ducks began the postseason 12–2 and reached the Stanley Cup finals.
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