Though they were facing the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, and though they had needed seven games to advance from each of the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Rangers always had a trump card in their pocket: Fortress Madison Square Garden.
Even after losing two games in Tampa to allow the Lightning to tie the Eastern Conference finals, there was an unshakable sense of confidence in Rangerland coming into Game 5. After all, the team was 8-1 at home in the playoffs, its only loss coming in triple overtime in the very first game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
So when the Lightning ended the magic with a 3-1 victory at the Garden on Thursday night, it was a hammer blow. And all the more frustrating because the key Tampa goals came not entirely from the power trio of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, but also from an unlikely defenseman taking a couple of low-percentage shots.
The Rangers started the night promisingly. Seemingly infused with energy from their venerable arena, they played from the opening face-off with an authority and crispness missing in Tampa. The pace was fast, and the first period was free-flowing and penalty free.
Disquietingly for the Rangers, who clearly had the upper hand, it was also goal free. New York fired off eight shots, and Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy saved them all. His counterpart Igor Shesterkin was called upon to save just three. And this came from a Rangers team that had been outshot, 153-127, in the first four games.
The Lightning at times in the early going looked less like the two-time defending champions and more like a team awed by the occasion. Every time (and there were many) that there was a face-off in the Lightning end, there was the sense that this would be the moment the Rangers finally broke through.
But dominance doesn’t count unless you score a goal. The Rangers finally got theirs at 10:29 of the second period not from dominance, but almost from happenstance. Defenseman Ryan Lindgren scored for his first point of the series and second goal of the playoffs via a speculative flick from near the boards that maybe was intended for a deflection. Instead it went in.
But if New York expected that drawing first blood would crack the game open, it was mistaken. A one-goal lead is a slender reed, even at the Garden. Tampa Bay’s answer came at 17:34 of the second, and it was somehow even more unlikely.
Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev scored his first goal of the playoffs. It too was unassisted: a high shot nearly from the blue line that sailed waist-high past at least three Rangers as well as Corey Perry of the Lightning camped in the crease, then most importantly Shesterkin, who could do nothing.
Besides equalizing the score, the visitors had chipped away at the Rangers’ pre-eminence. After the second period, the gap in shots was gone, and both goalies had made exactly 15 saves on 16 shots.
In the frenetic third period, both sides narrowly failed to capitalize on breakaways and opponents’ mistakes, and the tension led to a couple of pushing-and-shoving scrums as well.
With 1:50 to go, Tampa delivered the coup de grâce, improbably again as Sergachev, from just inside the blue line, sent the puck through traffic and Palat deflected it home. That sucked the life from the raucous Garden faithful, who had already been gearing up for one or more overtimes, and essentially ended the game, though Tampa added an empty-net goal by Brandon Hagel.
A case could be made that this series had tipped further toward the Lightning with every game.
Game 1 was effectively a romp, with the Rangers winning, 6-2, and the Lightning seeming rusty after a week off following their sweep of the Florida Panthers in the previous round.
The Rangers won Game 2 at home, 3-2, and took a 2-0 lead in Game 3 in Tampa. But that was the high-water mark. Thirty seconds later, the Lightning scored and came back to win 3-2. In Game 4, the Lightning dominated in a 4-1 victory. Suddenly, the series was tied.
The Rangers were counting on the home building and crowd on Thursday to reverse that trend, seemingly as much as they were counting on the likes of the 52-goal scorer Chris Kreider, and Artemi Panarin, so often the best player on the ice.
Kreider’s power-play prowess — he led the league in man-advantage goals — was limited by the nearly whistle-free game. The Rangers were called for just two in-game penalties and the Lightning one. (A postgame brouhaha — starring Steven Stamkos and Alexis Lafrenière — led to six more that were too late to have an effect on the final score.)
“It was one of those games; it was a defensive battle,” said Rangers coach Gerard Gallant, saying Shesterkin had been screened and not seen either the first or second goal. “We played a sound hockey game. It’s tough to lose like that at the end, but it was a good hockey game. It could have went either way.”
The year has been a success for the Rangers, who are coming off a tear-down and rebuild that had led them to miss the playoffs the previous four seasons. For a team that at its best was 25-1 when the season started, a conference final is overachievement. And despite the deflating loss, the Rangers are not technically dead yet.
The Rangers came back from three-games-to-one down against the Penguins, finally winning in overtime in Game 7. They came back twice against the Hurricanes in the next round, and won another Game 7.
Now down three-games-to-two again, they need two straight wins. Worryingly, the first of those on Saturday, must come in Tampa.