Other than “commanding three-games-to-none lead,” there is perhaps no more overwrought phrase in playoff hockey than “pivotal Game 5.”
After all, every postseason game, especially when teams get as far as the Eastern Conference finals like the Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning have, is pivotal.
That was certainly true on Tuesday when the Rangers and the Lightning played Game 4 in Tampa, Fla. The Rangers, up two games to one, needed a win to head home with a chance to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup finals against the Colorado Avalanche, who completed a sweep of the Edmonton Oilers on Monday, and avoid another grueling seven-game series like they had against the Penguins in the first round and the Hurricanes in the conference semifinals.
The Lightning wanted to build on their Game 3, come-from-behind victory and continue their march toward a third straight Stanley Cup title. Their deep playoff experience ended up making the difference, as the Lightning overwhelmed the Rangers, 4-1, to send the teams back to New York for Game 5 on Thursday with the series tied.
If you ordered a Stanley Cup contender from the Hockey Team Factory, the Lightning would show up on your doorstep. The team is filled with confident and seasoned stars like Steven Stamkos, their captain; Nikita Kucherov; and Ondrej Palat, who have played together since the 2013-14 season and helped the Lightning beat the Rangers in the 2015 Eastern Conference finals.
After being broadsided by the Rangers in the first two games of the series in New York, the Lightning played with their characteristic speed and discipline. They were faster to the puck, scooped up rebounds and pushed the Rangers around, allowing them to spend significant portions of the game in the offensive zone.
“It wasn’t our best, Games 1 and 2,” Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian said after the game. “Toward the end of Game 2 we started to kind of get back to our identity a little bit and we showed that the last two games at home. Now it’s time to go on the road and get some work done. “
The Rangers appeared lucky to skate off the ice down just one goal after the first period and down two goals after the second period.
“We’re getting back to our speed game and finding ways to get the puck behind them,” Tampa Bay forward Patrick Maroon said after the game.
In some ways, the Rangers are not unlike the Lightning team that beat them in 2015. They started the season with the third-youngest roster in the NHL, and played with verve for much of the year. They beat the more-experienced Pittsburgh Penguins, then knocked off the Carolina Hurricanes, who won the Metropolitan Division over the Rangers.
As the Rangers learned in their two losses in Tampa, the Lightning are a cut above. They bottled up the Rangers’ top players, including their top goal-scorer, Chris Kreider, and their best passer, Artemi Panarin. They took only a few penalties and kept the Rangers’ power-play unit off the ice for the first two periods of Game 4. Their goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, regained the confidence that eluded him in the first two games.
“There’s a lot of experience in this room,” Stamkos said after the game. “That’s what we lean on.”
The Lightning jumped in front less than three minutes into Game 4 when Bogosian’s shot was blocked by Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin but Maroon raced in unchecked and backhanded the puck over Shesterkin’s pads and into the net. It was Maroon’s third goal of the playoffs and an ominous sign for the Rangers, who were beaten by a Lightning fourth line that played like it was on a power play.
Soon after, the Rangers faced another test when their enforcer, Ryan Reaves, was called for tripping. Shesterkin kept the Rangers in the game by smothering the puck with his outstretched leg.
Shesterkin was not the Rangers’ problem, though. In the second period, the Rangers came alive for a stretch but had nothing to show for it after spending huge sums of energy.
Then Palat, who scored the game-winning goal in Game 3 with less than a minute remaining, swung around in the neutral zone and fired a pass to his linemate, Kucherov, who was waiting alone at the blue line. Kucherov broke away and put the puck between Shesterkin’s pads for a 2-0 Tampa Bay lead.
It was Kucherov’s seventh goal of the playoffs, and his third straight season with at least 20 points in the playoffs, the first time that’s happened since Hall of Famer Sergei Fedorov of the Red Wings did that in four straight seasons between 1995 and 1998.
The Rangers finally scored with 3:33 left in the game, ending a drought that stretched back to the midway point in Game 3, when Panarin scooped up a loose puck and shot it past Vasilevskiy. It was the Rangers’ 17th power-play goal of the playoffs, which only helped to highlight how poorly the Rangers have played at even strength.
The Rangers are not done, of course. They still have home-ice advantage and are 8-1 at Madison Square Garden so far in the playoffs. Their only home playoff defeat came in the opening game of the first round when they lost in triple overtime to the Penguins.
The Rangers have also played their best hockey with their backs to the wall during the playoffs. They overcame a three-game-to-one deficit in the first round to beat the Penguins and knocked off the Hurricanes by winning Game 7 on the road.
“They make all kinds of plays and have really good speed,” said Lightning center Anthony Cirelli after the game. “You just have to be on them. You’ve got to know when they’re on the ice where they are and limit them. “
Whether the Rangers will be at full strength is a question. Ryan Strome did not play in Game 4 after getting injured on Sunday. And center Filip Chytil, one-third of the “Kid Line” that includes Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko, who are all 22 or younger, left the game in Game 4 after absorbing a hit along the wall.
Whether or not both Strome and Chytil play, the Lightning will be looking to be the first team in this series to win away from home.
“At some point, if we want to win the series, we’ll have to win on the road,” Stamkos said.