So much for a bounce back performance. For a second consecutive game, the Lightning put up a six spot on Henrik Lundqvist. Unlike Game 2’s 6-2 blowout, this one was more damaging with Nikita Kucherov scoring at 3:33 of overtime to beat the Rangers 6-5 in a wild Game 3 at Amalie Arena.
Even after getting off to a quick 2-0 start on goals from Derick Brassard and Jesper Fast, the Rangers couldn’t get out of their own way. The more dangerous Bolts erupted for four straight taking a 4-2 lead late in the second period. Even after they showed resiliency getting the next two to draw even, the Rangers made costly mistakes that was the difference in another shootout.
Tyler Johnson continued his assault scoring his playoff-leading 12th goal and assisting on another. Triplet linemates Kucherov and Ondrej Palat each recorded two points. Steven Stamkos had a goal and assist while Alex Killorn scored twice. The Lightning had no trouble beating a subpar Lundqvist who gave up Kucherov’s game-winner from way out. He allowed six goals on 40 shots taking another beating at the hands of a team that owns him. It was the fifth time this season he’s allowed five goals or more to the Bolts.
Unless he improves dramatically, the Rangers don’t stand a chance of winning the series. Of course, it’s not only Lundqvist that’s been bad. It’s most of the team including a previously impenetrable defense that’s been exposed by the quicker and more skilled Lightning. In leading two games to one in this Eastern Conference Final, they’re taking advantage of every Ranger mistake. There are too many to list.
Even a great start wasn’t enough against the Lightning. Taking advantage of a ticky tac Craig Paquette roughing minor following the game’s first shift, Brassard fired a laser through a Chris Kreider screen past Ben Bishop to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead just 62 seconds in. Dan Boyle and Derek Stepan set it up.
Before 10 minutes had been played, Fast put them ahead by two when he followed up a rebound from Kreider and Ryan McDonagh. But before they could even get comfortable, a bad Boyle turnover at the point led directly to Stamkos coming with Killorn two-on-one on Lundqvist who steered the rebound right to Stamkos for a tap in cutting it to 2-1 at 11:55. Just a brutal play all around with everyone scrambling and Lundqvist hurting himself.
Another selfish Brassard penalty (hooking) midway thru the contest allowed the Bolts to tie the score. They converted their fifth power play goal already when Stamkos and Johnson combined to feed Palat for a wicked wrist shot far side on Lundqvist at 10:32 of the second period. Keith Yandle followed by getting nabbed for holding but on the delayed penalty, he drew a even up trip on Brenden Morrow leading to 4-on-4. What followed was another mind numbing sequence.
Marc Staal was set up perfectly in the slot. One-on-one with Bishop, he missed the net causing another Bolts transition which resulted in an all too predictable easy Johnson goal from Palat and Victor Hedman. How bad was it? On a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the lowest, I’d put it at a zero for the Rangers’ lack of focus. They were awful with Kreider in particular caught napping instead of taking Johnson.
Trailing for the first time, the Rangers put themselves in a bigger hole. Off another miscue, they watched Killorn outrace them and then pull up and fire a stoppable shot top shelf on Lundqvist at 17:18 to make it 4-2. Hedman set the play in motion letting Killorn do the rest. He’s been the best defenseman by a mile. He’s playing well defensively with Anton Stralman blanketing the all but invisible Rick Nash. Did he even play?
Down by two, the Blueshirts responded immediately thanks to another big shift from Fast. The emerging first-year Swede took a Kevin Klein feed and cut in on Bishop faking shot and then deking with a sweet backhand finish only 29 seconds later to pull them within 4-3. Stepan started it drawing a secondary helper.
They would tie it up on another power play early in the third. With Andrej Sustr off for tripping Carl Hagelin, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault sent out the second unit which included J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Nash, Yandle and McDonagh. After failing twice in a key portion up 2-1 in the second, the power play came through with Hayes skating into the slot before making a great dish for an open McDonagh, who shot high past a sprawling Bishop tying it with 17:32 left.
Playing in a tie game with a chance to steal it, another mistake put them down once more. This time, Kreider made a terrible decision. After taking a hit during a shift, he went for retaliation in a tie game with about six minutes left. After delivering the big hit, it took him out of the play entirely with allowing Nikita Nesterov to feed Kucherov who found a wide open Palat in front for his second of the game giving the Bolts a 5-4 lead with 5:55 remaining. It was a play so inexplicable that you wonder where Kreider’s head was.
Lucky for him, his teammates found a way to tie it with under two minutes left in regulation. Following a Tampa icing, the Rangers won a offensive draw back to Yandle, who didn’t hesitate for once with his shot getting deflected in front by Miller causing a rebound which Boyle deposited making it 5-5 with 1:56 remaining. For most of the period, they got killed on draws. No coincidence that after Vigneault moved Miller up to the ineffective Brassard/Nash unit, they finally got some results. Miller makes things happen and should stay for Friday’s pivotal Game 4.
Entering overtime, the Rangers were a perfect 4-0 while the Lightning were 2-0. Something had to give. Early on, the Blueshirts got good pressure with consecutive strong shifts from the Brassard line and from the third unit of Hagelin, Dominic Moore and Martin St. Louis. It was Moore who took the puck hard to the net and tried to beat Bishop with a backhand in tight but he stopped it and then the refs blew the whistle due to a player shoved into him. The puck was loose.
The stunning end came when Kucherov took a Nesterov feed in his own end and coasted past a slow changing Rangers before pulling up at the top of the circle and sending a wrister past Lundqvist to the stick side at 3:33. A shot so easy normally but not on this night and not against this opponent.
Now, the Rangers face a must win scenario. There’s no way they’re coming back against this team from 3-1 down. They aren’t the Caps. The Lightning have much more speed and are more explosive. Two straight games, they’ve gotten the Rangers to play a more wide open style which favors their up tempo attack. The Rangers must find a way to slow them down. They also must manage pucks better through the neutral zone and forecheck more consistently behind Bishop’s net. Make them play D.
They aren’t practicing tomorrow. It’ll be interesting to see what adjustments Vigneault makes. Unless they get better play from Lundqvist and Nash awakens, it could be lights out.