New York Rangers drop in Game 3 to Tampa Bay Lightning: analysis

TAMPA BAY — With a two-goal lead and a chance to take a 3-0 series lead, the Rangers let the opportunity slip through their fingers.

It’s a way of looking at things.

Another is to give credit to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The two-time defending champions refused to go down easy, rallying for a 3-2 win in Game 3 of Sunday’s Eastern Conference Finals at Amalie Arena.

“I wouldn’t say we quit because they played really well,” Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant said. “But we could have stolen it tonight and led 3-0.”

Ondrej Palat scored the winner with 41.6 seconds left to wrap up a 51-shot effort by the Bolts, who were relentless in their effort to cut their series deficit to 2-1. They were leading 2-0 halfway through the match, but scored three unanswered goals to secure a critical victory.

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Before the match, striker Ryan Reaves noted the significance of Game 3 and what a road win could have meant for Rangers’ chances of toppling the champions.

“You don’t want to give a team like this wiggle room,” he said. “You have to bury them when you can. It’s an important game for us. We know the talent they have there and what they’ve done in the playoffs. They haven’t won twice a mistake. The mentality is that we have to win this game. We have to create some separation because we know what they can do.

Instead, the Rangers need to regroup — and lick their wounds, especially with center Ryan Strome out with a lower-body injury — for Game 4, which is played in Tampa at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

A win there would put them firmly back in control of the series, but a loss would turn it into a coin flip.

“Give them credit. They pushed us hard and it was a desperate game for them,” Gallant said. “They were the best team tonight overall. It went all the way and we had a chance to win late in the hockey game. It’s disappointing but we’re going to move on and we prepare for the next one.”

Andrei Vasilevskiy talks about his game

The first period was up to the hype that surrounded the two goalkeepers entering the series.

Igor Shesterkin continued his streak with 15 saves in the first 20 minutes, but Andrei Vasilevskiy managed to match him after allowing nine goals in the first two games in New York.

The Lightning keeper made 12 first-period saves to keep the game scoreless, including three during a six-second span as Rangers’ fourth line of Tyler Motte, Barclay Goodrow and Reaves swarmed the crease.

But Adam Fox thinks the Blueshirts didn’t do enough to annoy Vasilevskiy in the latter part of the game.

“The first few games we had a lot of traffic and a lot of opportunities – maybe a lot of second chances and zone times,” he said. “It’s never easy for a goalie when you play rebounds and you have to move around a lot. … A little more traffic is important.

Chris Kreider binds Rod Gilbert

A mostly contested five-on-five first period gave way to a second period with six penalties, including three for each team.

That opened the door for Rangers’ dangerous power play, which converted two of their five chances.

The first came courtesy of Mika Zibanejad, who unleashed one of his patented one-timers on a Fox stream to make it 1-0 at 7:37. This temporarily gave him the team lead with 10 playoff goals, including six on the power play.

But Kreider would equal it just over two minutes later. Zibanejad set it up with another point shot, and while Vasilevskiy made the save this time, the No.20 was there to clean up the rebound.

It gave Kreider 10 goals in those playoffs and 34 for his career, tying him with Rod Gilbert for first in franchise history.

A special teams swing

The two-goal lead put Rangers on the precipice of a 3-0 series lead, but Tampa wouldn’t fall apart so easily.

Barely 1:06 after Kreider’s goal, the Lightning connected on a power play. Nikita Kucherov, who had been frustrated by Shesterkin countless times in the first seven periods of the series, finally got past him with a one-timer that was set up by Victor Hedman.

That cut the deficit to 2-1, with another power-play goal tying the score early in the third period. This one came from Steven Stamkos, who unloaded a one-timer from a similar spot to Zibanejad.

As good as the Rangers’ power play is — they rank first among playoff teams with a 31.4 percent conversion rate — Tampa is pretty good on its own. They converted at a 25% clip, making it imperative to stay out of the penalty area.

“We want to play five-on-five,” Fox said. “We have a very good power play, but as you can see, so do they. We are a skilful and fast team and we play better when the game is fluid and we could play five against five.

Tampa’s two PP goals came from penalties on Jacob Trouba, who was called for three overall.

“Troubs has been a rock for us all year,” Fox said. “It’s not his fault, obviously. Some calls happen. Obviously, that one to start the third (holding against Anthony Cirelli), I don’t know about that one. But Troubs played a lot of games. C “He’s a leader for us. He’s bouncing back. I don’t think anyone here blames Troubs.”

Injuries are scary

Before the goal race, Rangers lost Strome after a push from Palat caused his right leg to bend awkwardly early in the second period. He was ruled out for the remainder of the game with what the team described as a lower-body injury, leaving his Game 4 status in question.

“He came back for a shift and he just wasn’t good enough,” Gallant said. “We will know more (Monday). Hopefully he will be fine for the next one.”

This forced Rangers to play the remainder of Game 3 with 11 forwards, with that number briefly reduced to 10 after Goodrow blocked a slap shot from Hedman and disappeared into the locker room.

He broke his left ankle blocking a shot in Rangers’ first-ever playoff game on May 3 and missed nearly a month, with Hedman’s shot hitting a similar area. But he came back after just 2:23 this time.

“Stromer is a big hunk,” Andrew Copp said. “It’s a huge loss and everyone has to kind of step in around (him). Hopefully he’s not out for too long and then he loses Goody – what a blocked shot after coming back from that that he’s already been through. Match results are what it is, but when you have people like that, you can always win with that.”

Third period ‘wasn’t good enough’

While the first two periods were fairly even, the third period was all Tampa.

The Lightning beat Rangers, 19-6, in the final 20 minutes while producing 10 high-risk scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.

“Third period for us just wasn’t good enough,” Fox said. “We were on our heels the whole time and eventually they’ll get one – and they did.”

Stamkos tied the score 1:22 into the period before Palat eventually prevailed.

A bouncing puck landed on Erik Cernak’s stick near the blue line, then whipped around until Kucherov set up Palat’s one-timer with a no-look pass from the slot.

After the game, Kreider answered a question directed at Zibanejad to take responsibility for not clearing the puck when the Rangers had the chance.

“I have to get the puck out,” he said. “I’m looking at the puck. I should have come and planted instead of filtering a little too far towards the net. … Everyone was considered. I didn’t need to go back and get closer this close to the paint. If I planted it, it comes straight to me and I can get it out.”

Shesterkin finished with 48 saves, but there wasn’t enough in front of him to walk away with the win.

Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Learn more about his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.

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