The Avalanche are crowned new Stanley Cup champs over unbelievable Lightning, Hall Of Shame strikes again with Mogilny snub, questionable decisions in Toronto

On Sunday night at Amalie Arena, the NHL crowned a new champion. The Colorado Avalanche defeated the two-time champion Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 to take Game Six in enemy territory to win the Stanley Cup.

The Avalanche did it by digging out of an early hole. The Lightning weren’t ready to go down easily. Captain Steven Stamkos scored his 11th of the postseason to put them ahead in front of a great home crowd.

It was the Bolts who came out strong to grab the one-goal lead against the Avalanche. After Andrei Vasilevskiy turned aside Nazem Kadri and Nathan MacKinnon in the early going, Stamkos tallied off a good play from Nikita Kucherov behind the boards with help from Ondrej Palat. That work allowed Stamkos to open the scoring at 3:48.

In a well played first period that saw the Lightning do a good job on the forecheck, Darcy Kuemper made a few key stops to keep the deficit at one. For the starting goalie who was questioned by critics during the playoffs and particularly in the Stanley Cup Finals, he did a good enough job to deliver for winning coach Jared Bednar.

Although they were outshot 10-8 in the first, the Avalanche picked up their play during the second half. They used their speed to generate scoring chances. The best coming when Artturi Lehkonen had a shot graze off the goalpost on a good Kadri feed.

Similar to the previous two games where they fell behind, the Avalanche picked it up in the second period. Nathan MacKinnon had only one goal up to that point. He’d been held in check due to Tampa’s defense that included Victor Hedman or Ryan McDonagh with Erik Cernak or Zach Bogosian. It also featured Anthony Cirelli and Nick Paul as the center  between Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel.

The only goal MacKinnon had went off his skate on a power play during Game Four. He’d had so many shots rejected by the gritty Cernak, who’s the Bolts’ version of Jacob Trouba. But also similar to Ryan Lindgren, who came back and played through an ankle sprain during the Rangers’ run to the Conference Finals.

When he wasn’t getting shots blocked, MacKinnon had to contend with the strong play of Vasilevskiy, who often got over to deny his deadly accurate shot from the left circle that includes the one-timer. He’d been frustrated. In fact, the Avalanche showed some frustration following the first period Sunday night.

However, on a strong forecheck shift where a delayed call allowed them to get an extra skater on for a six-on-five, some splendid work from captain Gabriel Landeskog allowed Bowen Byram to get a perfect pass across for a MacKinnon one-timer that just squeaked past Vasilevskiy short side at 1:54 to tie the game.

Following the goal on what was a great shot that Vasilevskiy couldn’t quite get over and seal off the goalpost, the Lightning mildly protested it. Stamkos immediately spoke to both refs Wes McCauley and Gord Dwyer about the play.

As usual, nobody on ABC/ESPN knew what was going on. However, neither did I. This wasn’t a question of offside. But rather about if Paul got clear possession at the same time the penalty was called.

Former NHL ref Dave Jackson chimed in to announcers Sean McDonough and Ray Ferraro that although Paul touched the puck, it wasn’t long enough to be ruled as possession. Had it been, that would’ve led to the play being whistled dead and a Colorado power play. By the definition, they got it right.

Instead, the game was tied. MacKinnon’s 13th of the playoffs swung the game. From that point on, it was the faster skating Avalanche who got the better chances. They started to use their skating legs to put the Lightning on the defensive. That created more pressure and forced Vasilevskiy into some difficult stops.

Although the Bolts kept coming on the forecheck, you never got the feeling they’d get another goal. Unless it was created by Stamkos, Kucherov or Palat, it wasn’t happening. As much as he tried, Kucherov had seven attempts blocked. One of the game’s greatest playoff players couldn’t find the room to get his lethal shot through a stingy Avalanche defense.

The other serious threats were Hedman and the underrated Mikhail Sergachev, who despite getting victimized by Kadri on the crushing overtime winner in Game Four, had a good series. He got extended shifts due to Cernak playing banged up literally.

It was actually their checking line that had Riley Nash with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and three-peat winner Pat Maroon (was bidding for four straight Cups) that was very effective. They got pucks in and forechecked. The issue was aside from Maroon, who scored a nice goal during the Stanley Cup Finals, neither Bellemare or Nash have much finishing touch.

The best opportunity the Lightning got came in transition. A two-on-one pass for a Kucherov shot just missed wide. He had daylight, but was unable to bury it. That came over a minute into the third period with his team trailing by one.

A player who was outstanding during the series was Byram. A former first round pick who replaced injured top four puck moving defenseman Samuel Girard, he had a great night. In 31 shifts (25:48), he finished with a primary assist on the MacKinnon equalizer along with two shots, six attempts, eight hits, a block and plus-one rating.

The 21-year old was picked fourth in the 2019 NHL Draft. In 20 games this postseason, Byram tallied nine assists and went plus-15 while playing second pair with key deadline pickup Josh Manson. Talk about a guy who is gonna get paid this summer. Will it be in Colorado?

It was over halfway through the period that the Avalanche skill and speed again came through. On a good play started by Manson up for a speeding MacKinnon, who got into the Lightning zone, he had his pass take a nice bounce off McDonagh right to Lehkonen who scored what proved to be the Stanley Cup winning goal with 7:32 left in the second.

Lehkonen was another great piece Nordiques/Avalanche legendary GM Joe Sakic added at the trade deadline. The two-way forward used his speed and grit to be a factor during the Avalanche’s third Stanley Cup. The former Canadien registered eight goals with six helpers for 14 points. He’s a restricted free agent in July. A year away from unrestricted status, Lehkonen could see his salary more than double. He had a cap hit of $2.4 million.

The interesting decision that awaits Sakic and the Avalanche is who they choose to keep. How do they let Kadri walk? He had a great season. The former Leaf posted a career best 87 points (28-59-87) and added 15 points (7-8-15) in the playoffs to shed the ridiculous label that he was the reason Toronto couldn’t win. He’ll have the memorable OT winner and this Cup for the rest of his career.

At 31, Kadri will be a big target for many teams who have the room to fit him in. The center had an AAV of $4.5 million. It’s going to take between 9-10 million to sign him. Would he take less term for a little more money? Or what about staying in Colorado where he had so much success and won? Very interesting questions.

The Avalanche have over $26 million in cap space. However, they will have to decide on Kadri, Kuemper, Manson, Valeri Nichushkin, Andre Burakovsky and other UFA’s. They can opt to keep Lehkonen for a year through salary arbitration. He’d at least see a two million increase if they want to save money.

While all of this can be discussed during the off-season that officially started Monday with the 2022 NHL Draft to follow July 7-8 at Bell Centre in Montreal where the Canadiens will have the first pick, let’s get to why the Avalanche didn’t need to go to a deciding Game Seven back at home.

After holding a 13-9 edge in shots during a second period in which the refs let a lot of stuff go including some undetected trips by Colorado players, the Avalanche seized the moment in the third period.

As MacKinnon pointed out in a revealing interview with ESPN reporter Emily Kaplan during intermission, they had the fresher legs. He was proven right.

With the Lightning on fumes from an astonishing third straight run to the Stanley Cup Finals in defense of their last two Cups, the amount of wear and tear really showed in the final period.

Despite being down a goal in front of fans who encouraged their heroes, they couldn’t mount anything. It was the first three minutes in that they had their best push. However, no shots reached Kuemper.

A diving MacKinnon made a block less than a minute in to set the tone. You saw Colorado hound the Lightning skaters by getting in the shooting lanes and passing seams to break up plays. They really frustrated the Bolts, who started to force the action. Even Kucherov had some uncharacteristic turnovers you rarely see.

It took the Lightning over half the period to get a shot on goal. It was a long McDonagh drive from center ice that Kuemper easily handled. The only notable save he had to make was when Palat got the puck over for a Kucherov one-timer that Kuemper denied on a mini two-on-one.

The only other big Kucherov chance came earlier in the period. However, he missed an open side on a Corey Perry feed off a two-on-one. That was the best opportunity the Lightning had at tying it. The former Hart winner just couldn’t connect. It was a frustrating night.

In a period totally dominated by the Avalanche, they really could’ve won by more. But Vasilevskiy wouldn’t allow it. He gave his team every chance to come back. The former Conn Smythe winner was superb making several splendid saves to rob Colorado players. None better than a terrific stop on Valeri Nichushkin point blank.

Vasilevskiy really proved why he’s the game’s best goalie. Even in a Stanley Cup where the Avalanche put up seven in a lopsided Game Two, he got better as the series went on. The Avs had a lot of puck luck on some of their goals. They created it.

Aside from not having much left in the gas tank, the biggest difference was how the Avalanche swarmed the two-time defending champs. They attacked at every opportunity. It was a brilliant Vasilevskiy who made 28 saves including nine in a lopsided final period. He really couldn’t have done more.

Aside from the long McDonagh shot and Kucherov chance, the Bolts only got two more shots on Kuemper, who handled them without any problem. Even with the sellout crowd of 19,092 encouraging their team with “Let’s Go Bolts!!!” chants, they were only able to muster a Killorn tip-in try and Paul shot with over a minute left in Game Six.

The Lightning just couldn’t get much set up even with Vasilevskiy on the bench for a six-on-five. The Avs surrounded Kucherov and Palat. Both of who had good series. They blocked four attempts late including two from Kucherov with his final one coming with 34 seconds remaining.

It was that kind of attention to detail that allowed the Avalanche to closeout the Lightning on the road. With Kucherov scrambling to the bench after breaking his twig, the Tampa equipment manager didn’t have a new stick ready.

That resulted in an ugly scene with a visibly frustrated Kucherov tossing his glove at the poor manager. He wasn’t on for the final seconds. It didn’t matter. That’s how well the Avalanche defended. They protected a one-goal lead like it was much bigger. Their desire to win the franchise’s first Cup in 21 years put them over the top.

When the buzzer sounded, the Avalanche mobbed one another on the ice. You had a surreal scene with MacKinnon diving on top of Erik Johnson and hugging him. He’d been vocal about how they hadn’t accomplished anything after losing in the second round again last year. This time, he along with captain Gabriel Landeskog were Stanley Cup champions.

It was a true T-E-A-M effort. The Avalanche were crowned champs because they were the best team left standing. Even if they caught breaks along the way, you need to take advantage. They did in the first round and Western Conference Final.

Colorado finished 16-4 in capturing their third Cup. Two losses to the Blues in a good second round. Two defeats versus the Lightning in a very hard fought Stanley Cup. Four games decided by a single goal. Two won by the Avalanche in overtime. They went 3-1 in one-goal games in the series. The Lightning took Game Five in Colorado 3-2 to force the Avs to dig deeper.

Most astonishing is the Avalanche only lost one road game during their run. They went a remarkable 9-1 outscoring opponents 43-29. They were 7-3 at home outscoring opponents 42-26.

Add it all up and the ’21-22 Colorado Avalanche were the most dominant team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Of their 16 victories, 10 were in comeback fashion. By far the most. The Lightning had five and the Rangers four by comparison. Those were the last three teams left.

While the Avalanche celebrated on one end, you had exhausted Lightning players down on the ice in a sadder scene. Palat being one of those Bolts who gave everything he had. He finished with 11 goals and 10 assists for 21 points. The second most behind team leader Kucherov, who finished with 27 points (8-19-27) in the postseason.

With the Lightning close to the cap limit for 2022-23, will they find a way to keep Palat. A seventh round gem in 2011 taken 204th. Now 31, he’s been an outstanding player. In 628 career games, Pally as he’s affectionately known has 423 points (143-280-423) and a plus-147 rating. The clutch playoff performer with a flair for the dramatic as he proved against the Rangers and Avalanche, is 48-46-94 in 138 postseason games.

Now an unrestricted free agent, Palat could cash in. He earned $5.3 million for the final year of his contract. If Tampa GM Julian BriseBois can keep him, he’ll have to get creative. That could mean moving a player to free up necessary space. Palat is in line for at least $6 million. A team could offer more in dollars and term.

That’s the reality of the salary cap era. It’s why what the Lightning did under coach Jon Cooper was so impressive. They made it as far as they could possibly go despite losing their whole third line last year. They did so on sheer guts and determination.

A day following losing the Cup after holding it for over two years, it was revealed that Brayden Point suffered a significant quad tear. How he played Games One and Two of the Stanley Cup is incredible. The Lightning wisely shut him down. He should make a full recovery in a few weeks according to Tampa reporter Joe Smith of The Athletic.

Kucherov dealt with a meniscus injury during the postseason. You wouldn’t have known it the way he played. He still was a serious threat who finished every check and played the way he always has.

McDonagh battled through a mangled finger. As we know, the former Rangers captain is a warrior. He once played on a broken foot in an excruciating series loss seven years ago to the Lightning. He took a boarding minor in the final game that handed the Avs their only power play. But the Lightning killed it off to hang around.

Maybe the biggest injury was to Cirelli. He suffered an AC joint sprain that’ll require surgery. He still played through it with Cooper limiting his minutes by moving up Paul, who really boosted his stock this summer. I’m not going to do it now. But I have some interesting thoughts on the gritty Paul, who filled in well at center and won face-offs.

Bellemare also played through a meniscus injury. What I want to know is how Cernak was able to avoid serious injury after some of those huge blocks. It reminded me of Ryan Lindgren. Cernak is a gamer. No way will he be moved in the off-season.

Injuries are always part of the playoff grind. The Avalanche won without Girard, who suffered a broken sternum against the Blues in the second round. They were able to overcome the loss due to the play of Byram and believe it or not, Jack Johnson. Yes. The same Jack Johnson our fans treated like crap. He gave them important minutes as the sixth defenseman.

He and Erik Johnson were once taken very high in back-to-back drafts. Erik went first overall in 2006 to St. Louis. Jack was picked third by Carolina in 2005. Both waited a long time to win Cups. As did Amdrew Cogliano.

To see Landeskog hand the Cup off to Erik Johnson first was pretty cool. He nearly retired due to all the injuries. Ditto for Cogliano and Jack Johnson who got their moments before MacKinnon, Kuemper and superstar Cale Makar, who added the Conn Smythe to his trophy collection that includes a Calder, Norris and his first Cup.

Before the Stanley Cup was passed around in a small circle due to way too many people on the ice (biggest gripe compared to old days), you had an emotional handshake between the two teams. You could see the respect factor with the Avalanche players having some positive words for the Lightning and all they accomplished.

It’s always great to see players acknowledge a special goalie like Vasilevskiy. Something we saw during what felt like the longest televised Stanley Cup celebration on network TV. ABC did a great job sticking with it. Kaplan had plenty of interviews on ice.

Even the legendary Kevin Weekes interviewed a very gracious Cooper afterwards. Is there a better loser than him? It helps that he won the Cup twice. He’s taken the Lightning to four of the last eight Finals. They lost to the Blackhawks in six games once. Then had some tough times including the Columbus sweep before lifting the trophy in 2020 and ’21.

What they achieved in winning 11 consecutive series may never be done again in the cap era. He said he was most proud of what this group did. They are a modern day Dynasty even though they fell short of a historic three-peat. They nearly beat four 50-win teams. Something that’s never been done in Stanley Cup history.

You wonder what Corey Perry was thinking after losing in the Finals for a third straight year. He also lost in 2020 as a Dallas Star and in 2021 as a Montreal Canadien to the Lightning. Now he knows how Marian Hossa felt. The only difference is the former Hart winner won the Cup with the Ducks in 2007. He’s still a good player. He contributed six goals and five assists in the playoffs.

Pat Maroon saw his Cup streak end at three. He was lucky to not get a penalty for a cheap slash after the Lehkonen goal. That should’ve been called. He was frustrated that a penalty wasn’t called on Manson earlier on that shift. But there was no excuse in that situation.

Like I said, they let a lot go. There easily could’ve been five more power plays. Three for Tampa and two for Colorado. It was decided at five-on-five. A Lightning strength that wasn’t in the last game. They didn’t have enough left.

In case you were wondering about ratings, it was a rousing success. ABC saw a huge turnout for the Stanley Cup. As much criticism as many gave them for some of their broadcast, nobody can question viewership which dramatically increased. Plus their end of Stanley Cup coverage that included a great video montage of the postseason dwarfed OLN Versus NBC. They aren’t missed. Though I wish Kathryn Tappen was still a part of hockey. She still follows the sport.

It matters that they’re drawing so many new fans. It’ll help grow the sport even more. I really liked Bill Daly’s speech before presenting the Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup. With commissioner Gary Bettman recovering from Covid, it was Daly who stood in and did a great job by heaping praise on what tremendous champions the Lightning were. Most fans stayed and saluted their heroes and cheered.

Daly sure paid homage to both teams in what was a great Stanley Cup. He gave the Avalanche their due. The only thing that was different or a distraction were all the wives and blonde girlfriends (they all looked related) on the ice along with family. Plus cameramen and wires everywhere making it impossible for players to take a victory lap with Lord Stanley. That shouldn’t be. Get these people off the ice. Let the Avalanche players have their moment. It’s ridiculous.

You didn’t have that chaos in the glory days. Teams could celebrate easier without all the traffic. The Avalanche also became the first team to damage the Cup on the ice. As they were getting ready to take the team picture, Nicolas Aube-Kubel dropped it as he dove into the photo. Landeskog knew it.

You cannot make it up. It was a momentous occasion. Hopefully, the Keepers of the Cup can repair the damage. That Cup will be doing plenty of travel around the world.

I was going to include my thoughts on the Hall Of Fame. It was a gong show. The HHOF is a joke. I’ll make it short and sweet.

How Alexander Mogilny still isn’t in is a joke. They’d rather put in Daniel and Henrik Sedin on their first year of eligibility and include people nobody has ever heard of. Congrats to Roberto Luongo and Daniel Alfredsson. Nothing against The Sedins. Both great players who are deserving of the honor. They should’ve waited.

I wrote a column in 2019 on the omission of Mogilny. Yet here we still are. What is the holdup? Is it the Canadian bias from former players in Toronto? Is it the ridiculous politics that the sport has become due to the war in Ukraine? Mogilny was better than Alfredsson and both Sedins. He should’ve been in a while ago.

You talk about a great player who sacrificed everything to come over to North America. He risked his life. He didn’t have permission like Slava Fetisov. Mogilny scored goals that left your hair standing up. He was electrifying. A triple gold member. A Stanley Cup winner. A 76-goal season in ’92-93 when he formed a dynamic duo in Buffalo playing alongside Pat LaFontaine. Mogilny and Teemu Selanne each had 76 that season.

Mogilny was productive everywhere he went. The Sabres, Canucks, Devils and Maple Leafs. He was over a point-per-game for his career. Neither Sedin was as exciting as they were to watch with Henrik winning the Hart and Daniel a Pearson. As great as Alfredsson was, he never was a point-per-game for his career.

They’re all Hall Of Fame players. That’s not the issue here. It’s how the committee has handled it. They’ve butchered it. They are insulting longtime hockey fans and media like Larry Brooks, who again devoted part of his Slap Shots Sunday column to Mogilny a day before Monday when the latest disappointment came. Just call it the Hall Of Shame!

How is Stan Fischler not in? All these years. His contributions to the sport have been immense. I interned for The Hockey Maven. He is a living legend and hockey thesaurus. Nobody tells better stories than Fischler.

For over a half a century, he’s been involved with the game. Whether it was working for the Rangers or for the Islanders and Devils in a broadcasting capacity, he has done it all. So did his wife Shirley. She was a pioneer for women in the business. How do they continue to ignore her and Stan?

It’s absurd. The Fischler Report is still being published even now. Friend of the site Sean McCaffrey contributes to a column that appears in The Hockey News. Stan loved his book on the real history of the New York Rangers. I’ve covered it.

We all know they’ve overlooked the original Rangers who helped the franchise win half their Cups. The Bread Line of Frank Boucher, Bill and Bun Cook. Dave Kerr. Bryan Hextall. Ching Johnson. Lester Patrick. Lynn Patrick. Neil Colville. Lorne Chabot. Chuck Rayner.

So many great names synonymous with the early success of the Original Six franchise. Madison Square Garden refuses to recognize them. The real blame goes to the Rangers organization, who waited way too long to honor legends Andy Bathgate, Harry Howell and Jean Ratelle. They never even had a night for Emile Francis.

You think Fischler hasn’t covered this important topic. He is an encyclopedia of knowledge. Stan turned 90 this year. He’s still as sharp as ever. He lives in Israel witu his family, but still remains dedicated to the sport. He’s a legend.

One of my favorite parts of working the Devils production truck in ’00-01 before I moved onto ESPN thanks to Stan, was listening to his tales of wit that started those meetings. The jokes. Some that can’t be repeated if you know what I mean. 😉 He’s a character. But most importantly, a professional. My greatest lesson.

I’m glad Fischler went into the U.S. Hockey Hall Of Fame. He sure deserved it. Even that took too long. Would you think the Rangers would acknowledge it when he was in town?? Of course not. The Islanders did. I would hope the Devils did even if their organization isn’t what it used to be.

The history of the sport should hold a special place. But when you look real closely at how the Hall Of Shame operates and the Rangers, it really raises an eye. I’d it that hard to get it right?

One last thing. In an email with Brooks on the HHOF, he had an interesting thought on Jeremy Roenick. Although he is one of the greatest American born players with over 500 goals, his career took a nosedive. The trade out of Chicago hurt. He was still a very good player for the Coyotes where he played witu Keith Tkachuk. But wasn’t as explosive. Ditto for the Flyers where they couldn’t quite get it done in ’04 against the Lightning.

Perhaps Roenick hanging on at the end to get to 500 goals hurt his candidacy. He’s never even mentioned. His politics probably doesn’t help. But should that even matter? NBC proved how out of touch they were. JR is a great listen when he appears on After The Whistle with Craig Rivet and Andrew Peters. He pulls no punches. That’s why.

Regardless if you’re pro or con on Roenick, Brooks agreed with me on Rick Middleton versus Guy Carbonneau. He also didn’t take issue with the suggestion of the much overlooked Steve Larmer, who was over a point-per-game while being a terrific two-way player who helped the Rangers the Cup in ’94.

There are other examples of players who should be in. The point is they’ve turned the Hall into a joke. Until Mogilny is in, I’ll continue to skip over the event in November.

This is probably my longest post of the season. For good reason. A lot had to be said. To put a bow on a great season. A terrific Stanley Cup. Plus the HHOF nonsense.

Congratulations to the Avalanche and the Lightning! Here’s hoping it’s our team next year.

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Palat’s latest game-winner keeps Lightning alive in Game Five win over Avalanche

Ondrej Palat scored his seventh career postseason winner with 6:22 remaining in the third period to keep the Lightning alive in their chase for a three-peat. They defeated the Avalanche 3-2 to hold the celebration in Colorado and force Game Six back in Tampa.

Twice, the Avalanche came back to tie the score. Valeri Nichushkin and Cale Makar tallied in the tough home defeat. But their bid for a third Stanley Cup fell short in Game Five.

It was again the heroics of Palat who delivered in the clutch for the Lightning. His one-timer from the slot snuck through Darcy Kuemper and took a good bounce at 13:38 of the third period to give the Bolts a 3-2 lead.

The play was set up thanks to a good forecheck. After Makar tied it when he had the good fortune to have his shot carom off Erik Cernak and in at 2:31 of the third, Mikhail Sergachev hit the crossbar. But it would be Sergachev who passed back for Victor Hedman, who found Palat open for the game-winner.

It was a well played game. The best of the Stanley Cup. The Lightning were able to do a better job managing the puck to move it up through the neutral zone and forecheck. The Avalanche continued to use their superior speed to generate scoring chances.

Twice, the Lightning went ahead in the first two periods. Jan Rutta scored the game’s first goal when he took a Corey Perry feed and surprised Kuemper with a shot that went underneath his glove at 15:23 of the first.

With Vasilevskiy making 12 saves in an evenly played period, the Lightning took a one-goal lead to the locker room. But the Avalanche ramped it up in a better second period to get the crowd going.

Finally, Nichushkin was able to score his fourth of the series when he rebounded home a deflected Makar shot that fooled Vasilevskiy. The puck bounced out of his glove right to Nichushkin for the tying goal at 5:07.

Although they continued to apply pressure, the Avalanche never went ahead. Vasilevskiy remained sharp by making 13 saves in the period.

Following offsetting penalties on Alex Killorn and J.T. Compher, Makar took down Palat to put the Lightning on a four-on-three power play. This time, they converted. Jon Cooper took a risk by going with four forwards.

It worked when off a good fake shot and pass from Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov was able to blast a one-timer through a Perry screen past Kuemper into the top half of the net to put the Bolts up 2-1. It was a huge goal.

Even bigger, they killed off a Ross Colton high-sticking minor late in the period. Playing a bit more aggressively and able to get sticks on pucks and make key clears, they limited the dangerous Colorado power play to two shots. Both saved by Vasilevskiy.

The third was well played. On a good play in transition started by Nathan MacKinnon, Devon Toews got the puck across for a pinching Makar, whose shot took a good bounce off Cernak to beat Vasilevskiy with 17:29 left.

It was similar to Game Four. In that one, the Avalanche tied it up when Andrew Cogliano had a puck deflect off him on a Nico Sturm rebound. They would win that game with Nazem Kadri scoring the overtime winner.

But this time, the Lightning hung in there. Vasilevskiy made the key saves after the Avalanche push with the crowd chanting, “We Want The Cup!!!”

Eventually, it was the Lightning who were able to come out of their zone and catch the Avalanche napping. On some good pressure, Sergachev and Hedman combined to set up Palat for a quick shot that Kuemper almost saved. But the puck trickled through his pads and banked in to make it 3-2 with 6:22 left in regulation.

In a twist of fate, the Avalanche got caught for a bench minor for too many men on the ice with 2:43 left in the third. Perry noticed it immediately and alerted the officials who had to call it. Colorado had a bad line change at an inopportune time.

Although they didn’t score on the five-on-four, the Bolts killed two minutes off the clock. That left the Avalanche in scramble mode getting Kuemper off with over 40 seconds left for a six-on-five.

They did get one chance. However, the shot never reached the net due to the Lightning defense. With under 10 seconds left, a hustling Anthony Cirelli forced Makar offside after his shot was stopped by Vasilevskiy.

Another offside sealed the win for the Lightning. They skated off with the grueling one-goal win to force a Game Six back home in Tampa tomorrow night. If they can win, they’ll have a chance at history. Only the 1942 Maple Leafs have ever rallied back to win the Cup from a 3-1 series deficit.

With Cirelli unable to take draws, the Lightning relied heavily on Stamkos and Nick Paul in the circle. They combined to go 34-for-60 on face-offs. Tampa went 40-and-34 due in large part to the work of Stamkos and Paul.

In a losing effort, Makar had a goal and assist. He’s up to 29 points (8-21-29) in the playoffs. Only Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are ahead of him. If the Avalanche win the Cup, he’s the favorite to win the Conn Smythe.

If they can pull off the comeback and make history, the Lightning would have both Kucherov (8-19-27) and the clutch Palat (11-9-20) in the mix for the Conn Smythe.

It should be interesting to see what happens. The hockey has gotten better. The games are very exciting which bodes well for ABC/ESPN in the ratings. Will it have a dramatic conclusion and go seven? We’ll find out Sunday night.

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Controversial Kadri goal in overtime puts Avalanche within a win of Stanley Cup, Replays show why Cooper and Lightning have reason to be disappointed

Controversy surrounded the conclusion of a well played Game Four won by the Avalanche in overtime 3-2 over the Lightning in Tampa.

They now are one win away from winning their third Stanley Cup. Game Five is Friday in Colorado.

Unfortunately, the goal Nazem Kadri scored at 12:02 of sudden death wasn’t without controversy. The key Avalanche center returned after missing the last four games due to a Evander Kane cheap shot that injured him versus Edmonton in the Western Conference Final.

Kadri was back for Game Four of the Stanley Cup Finals. He scored the biggest goal of the series with 7:58 remaining in the first overtime. At least so far. Unless the Lightning can rally back from a 3-1 deficit. They’re already aiming to make history by coming back from an 0-2 hole in both the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals.

The Avalanche are a game away due to their ability to come from behind. Twice, they trailed by a goal last night. That included a fortunate bounce off Andrew Cogliano who had a Nico Sturm rebound carom off him past Andrei Vasilevskiy to tie it up with 17:07 left in the third period.

A critical tying goal that came courtesy of their fourth line. Without the grit of Darren Helm, Sturm and the very playoff experienced Cogliano, the game might not have reached OT. That big shift by the checking unit proved large in Colorado’s comeback win.

What could haunt the Lightning is their inability to excel on special teams. They’ll need to dig deeper than they ever have. As Victor Hedman told reporters following the tough loss, they’ve never trailed a series three games to one. Now, they must play their best game to win in enemy territory to force a Game Six back in their building. Something captain Steven Stamkos alluded to.

The Bolts got off to a great start. Anthony Cirelli scored 36 seconds into the game when he got to his own rebound and beat Darcy Kuemper. The do everything two-way center out-hustled the Avs in front on a Erik Cernak shot to score for a second straight game to put the Lightning up early.

But in a first period they controlled by out-shooting the Avalanche 17-4 including 9-1 at one point, the Lightning were unable to extend the lead. That included a failed power play that’s hurt them so far. In a game where refs Wes McCauley and Kelly Sutherland let a lot of stuff go, they were 0-for-2 on the five-on-four.

Thus far, the Lightning have only scored once on the power play. Meanwhile, the Avalanche have now converted six times when on the man-advantage. That included an excuse me goal from a struggling Nathan MacKinnon that tied it at one over five minutes into the second.

With Hedman off for interference on Sturm who he knocked down, the Avs moved the puck around and had some big keeps before Mikko Rantanen had a shot that took a favorable carom right off a driving MacKinnon, whose back skate deflected the puck just past an unlucky Vasilevskiy. It was his first goal of the series.

It’s that kind of luck which sometimes determines these big games. On Thursday night at Amalie Arena, the Avalanche had it. They got the breaks which helped them take a 3-1 series lead with a chance to wrap it up tomorrow night on ABC.

After failing to convert on a second power play where Kuemper made a huge glove save to deny Stamkos from the slot, the Lightning got a great goal from Hedman to take back the lead with 9:18 left in the period.

On a simple outlet from Jan Rutta, Hedman was able to skate through the middle of the ice and blow by two soft stick waves before surprising Kuemper with a deceptive backhand that beat him far side at 10:42.

A brilliant play by the future Hall Of Famer. Hedman got his third of the postseason to restore a one-goal lead in favor of the Bolts.

Over a minute later, Stamkos got nabbed for a soft hook on Gabriel Landeskog. To me watching, it looked like a legal stick lift by the Lightning captain. But they called it hooking. It wasn’t the only weak call. I didn’t think Bowen Byram should’ve been in the box either for another phantom hook on Hedman. It mirrored the Stamkos minor.

Despite some great zone time spent in the Tampa zone, the Avalanche were unable to score on Vasilevskiy. He made the key saves to keep his team ahead. Unlike the opening period where it was Kuemper making the critical stops, it was Vasilevskiy who made 16 of 17 saves in a stronger second period by Colorado.

The only goal in the third came thanks to some strong work from the Avalanche down low. On a play started by the gritty Helm, it was Sturm who was able to chip a backhand floater towards the net that banked right off of Cogliano to beat Vasilevskiy only 2:53 into the period.

It was another good bounce for the Avalanche. Both their goals in regulation didn’t cleanly beat Vasilevskiy, who played well throughout. He made 34 saves on 37 shots to suffer the hard luck defeat.

As the third moved on, you could feel the intensity pick up. Both sides knew it was only going to take the next goal to decide the outcome.

The Lightning came the closest. On a clean face-off win by Stamkos, the puck came right back for a Kucherov shot that hit the crossbar with 11:33 left in regulation. It was well executed. But another example of luck not being on the Tampa side.

In a similar defensive minded style they were able to execute to perfection at five-on-five in the last round against the Rangers, the Lightning nearly won it in the final minute.

But unlike Ondrej Palat closing one game that swung the Eastern Conference Final, this time Nick Paul was denied in tight by Kuemper, who also made a good save on Hedman. That proved large.

In overtime, it was mostly Avs. Able to use the long change to their advantage to fuel their transition game led by Cale Makar, Devon Toews and MacKinnon, they really tilted the ice against a tired looking Bolts.

Vasilevskiy made some strong saves on Val Nichushkin and Makar. He also denied Logan O’Connor on a mini break to keep the Lightning alive. He really did his part also denying Landeskog before finally catching a break when a Byram high shot drew iron.

Following the stoppage midway through the overtime, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev got caught on for a long shift. Both stalwarts were on for the final 1:34 of sudden death.

However, that’s not the story. After another big save by Vasilevskiy on Landeskog, the Lightning were able to change the forwards. While Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel got off for Kucherov, Stamkos and Palat, a smart play by Kuemper got the puck to Artturi Lehkonen.

Lehkonen was able to move it up for Kadri at the Lightning blue line. He was able to do the rest by going around Sergachev and inside to fire a shot that at first nobody could tell what happened. Astonishingly, even McCauley didn’t see it behind the net.

Neither did ESPN/ABC lead play-by-play man Sean McDonough. He botched the call. He thought Vasilevskiy saved it. Seeing it live, it didn’t look like he did. It was strange. It wasn’t until Byram noticed the puck was in behind the Tampa net that the Avalanche celebrated.

At least Ray Ferraro corrected McDonough by describing what a play Kadri made to win the game. He probably had the production truck in his ear telling him it was in. They have those different looks in the truck that show such key plays.

But after ABC signed off the air following Emily Kaplan’s interview with Kadri, who said he was happy to get into the fray and contribute, even indicating that he wasn’t sure he scored, that’s when all hell broke loose.

Elliotte Friedman followed up a tweet from Lightning beat reporter Joe Smith who indicated that Cooper cut his postgame press conference short due to what they saw on the video replay.

Unfortunately, it was clear as day that the Avalanche had one too many skaters still on the ice when Kadri came on. I was able to pause it and count six before the line change was completed. Here’s how the play looked. Freeze it at 18 seconds and you’ll notice what happened.

Obviously, it’s a tough way to lose a game. Especially one as critical in the Stanley Cup. Kadri made a great play and shot to score the overtime winner. Take nothing away from him. He won it.

But I agree with what Cooper said on the winner. This one will sting for a while. Especially if his team can’t come back. To their credit, they said the right things.

Being able to pull off a 3-1 comeback is all about having the right mindset. The Lightning have enough Stanley Cup experience in that room to give it a shot. Like Stamkos noted they won’t go down easily. It’ll be interesting to see if they can get Game Five at Colorado and force Game Six back at home.

When you have the well respected Kevin Weekes stating the obvious about the too many men on the ice call that was missed in a good segment with the biased John Buccigross (could he openly root anymore for the Avalanche geez), it speaks volumes. Then, the NHL showed their incompetence by releasing a fugazi statement on the goal.

Why even bother? It’s an insult to hockey fans. They’d be better off saying nothing. It’s no different than the NBA or NFL do the same thing. The difference being is the NHL can’t even admit the four blind mice got it wrong. Ugh.

It doesn’t matter now. It won’t change the outcome of Game Four. It’s in the books. Avalanche 3. Lightning 2. In overtime. Kadri from Lehkonen and Kuemper at 12:02.

At this point in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Avalanche are just a little bit better than the Lightning. Whether it’s due to them being fresher from two layups that afforded them eight days off after dismantling the goalie and defense optional Oilers in the Conference Finals, their combination of size, skill, speed and grit have been a factor against the Lightning.

It’s easy to point to how much hockey the two-time defending champs have played the last three years including this run. They already dug deep in the first round to defeat the Maple Leafs. Then reeled off four in a row against the Rangers last round when our team had them on the ropes until Kucherov and Stamkos scored power play goals. Palat’s winner changed things.

There’s something to be said about the grit and determination the Lightning have shown. You see it whenever Erik Cernak sells out to block shots like the one that injured him. He returned, but hardly played. Ditto for Stamkos, who blocked four himself. Tampa had 34 blocks including seven from Sergachev, five from Palat and four from Cirelli.

Shot attempts were 90-68 in favor of Colorado. That was despite getting off to a slow start. It indicates how many shots they take. Once they get going in transition and on the forecheck, they’re pretty tough to stop.

The Lightning have done a good job limiting them offensively at even strength. But will need their best game to extend the series. That means concise passes and better clears along with stronger special teams. Even in a game there weren’t many penalties, they came out on the wrong side.

You could also make a good argument that there were at least three misses in the third period. Even McDonough and Ferraro noticed that the Avalanche got away with a couple of obvious ones including a trip from Landeskog on Hedman in the neutral zone.

As bad as their power play has been, the Lightning didn’t get the chance to see if they could decide it due to McCauley and Sutherland letting everything go. We’ll never know.

What is intriguing is following Game Five to see what is left in the tank for the Lightning. A championship team that’s reached the final round three straight times having repeated.

You have to go all the way back to 1982 for the last time a team appeared in three consecutive Finals. That would be the Islanders Dynasty that won four straight Cups and won a playoff record 19 straight series. Edmonton finally dethroned them in ’84.

What the Bolts have achieved in the very challenging salary cap era is remarkable. It might never be done again. Regardless if they have one more incredible push at a three-peat, it’s been a great run.

We’ll learn more about them starting tomorrow night.

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Czar Igor crowned as Vezina winner at NHL Awards, Shestyorkin finishes third for Hart a decade after Lundqvist, Matthews sweeps the Hart and Lindsay, Makar edges Josi for Norris, Drury up for GM of The Year

On Tuesday night in Tampa Bay, Igor Shestyorkin was recognized by most normal general managers when he easily won his first Vezina as the league’s best goalie at the NHL Awards on ESPN.

After a memorable ’21-22 season that saw him win 36 games while leading the league in GAA (2.07), save percentage (.935) with six shutouts, Czar Igor (credit to Sean McCaffrey of bluecollarblueshirts.com) was crowned The Vezina winner. He received 29 first place votes from the 32 GM’s who voted. Three cast votes for their goalie including former recipient Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Lightning, Frederik Andersen of the Hurricanes, and Ilya Sorokin of the Islanders.

I’ll save the rant about how out of touch the Godfather Lou Lamoriello is. He is a bitter old man. It is what it is. I feel no such animosity towards Julien BriseBois or Don Waddell, who both voted for two of the game’s best netminders. How Andersen wasn’t third over Saros I don’t understand. No disrespect meant. Saros meant a lot to the Predators, who were no match against Colorado without him.

For Shestyorkin, it was a nice coronation that recognized his achievements. He made 52 starts and appeared in 53 games. Both career highs along with the 36 victories, 2.07 GAA, .935 save percentage and six shutouts. The 26-year old Russian netminder who the Rangers stole in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL Draft with pick number 118 spoke in English when he received the prestigious award from Kevin Weekes.

Thanking the Rangers organization along with teammates and specifically goalie coach Benoit Allaire for believing in him, Shestyorkin made sure to mention his wife who is pregnant with their first baby. He also paid his respect to both Markstrom and Saros for their outstanding seasons.

It was nice to see him opt to speak exclusively in English. He did well in speaking eloquently at the podium. He also would get an interview with the very busy ESPN reporter Emily Kaplan. There was a lot to like about how Igor handled himself on what was a great occasion. He also has a dry sense of humor as Kaplan found out.

Without his brilliant play, the Rangers don’t reach the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in seven years. Similar to former franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist in 2012, Shestyorkin carried them as far as possible. He won five elimination games including three in a row during the first round to lead a 3-1 comeback to beat the Penguins.

It was his splendid play in the second round that made the difference in the Rangers taking the final two games including a second consecutive Game Seven to eliminate the Hurricanes in enemy territory. Although they fell short in losing four straight to the two-time defending champion Lightning in gut wrenching fashion to drop the Conference Final four games to two, Shestyorkin provided plenty of critical saves to give them a chance at the upset.

For the postseason, he finished 10-9 in 20 starts with a 2.59 GAA and .929 save percentage. The 720 shots faced along with the 669 saves made still lead all goalies this playoffs. It speaks to the high volume of shots he faced.

No more so than in his postseason debut when he made 79 saves on 83 shots in a 4-3 triple overtime loss to the Pens on May 3. An incredible effort despite Evgeni Malkin getting the winner on a deflection. Despite a couple of tough games in Pittsburgh that put the team in a 3-1 hole, Shestyorkin never wavered in confidence. He was able to move on and backstop the Rangers to their first series win since defeating the Canadiens in 2017.

Although he finished a distant third for the Hart Trophy which went to Auston Matthews, whose 60 goals and 106 points were hard to ignore while leading the Maple Leafs, Shestyorkin being recognized as a top three player for league MVP is a great honor. It’s not often goalies get recognized by the voters over skaters. Connor McDavid finished a distant runner-up behind Matthews, who also was recognized by his peers by winning the Ted Lindsay Award as voted on by the players.

Johnny Gaudreau, Jonathan Huberdeau and Kirill Kaprizov finished fourth, fifth and sixth. They got it right.

In a very close vote, the Norris went to Cale Makar of the Avalanche. He outdistanced Roman Josi, who actually received more first place votes. The difference was that Makar got more second place votes by the writers. Adam Fox was fifth despite playing through an injury. Boston’s Charlie McAvoy finished fourth.

Personally, I felt Josi deserved it for carrying the Predators to the playoffs. He had 96 points and was unbelievable down the stretch. Makar might’ve gotten some home cooking from the Canadian contingent. He’s a great player. But this feels similar to when Ray Bourque edged Scott Stevens. That was even closer.

The Calder went to Detroit defenseman Moritz Seider. He won comfortably over runner-up Trevor Zegras and Michael Bunting. It was the right call by voters to give the Rookie of The Year to the multidimensional Seider, who should challenge for the Norris in the future. Teammate Lucas Raymond finished fourth.

They also highlighted other awards that were already announced during the playoffs. That included Patrice Bergeron winning a record fifth Selke for the NHL’s top defensive forward. As huge a fan of Bergeron as I am which dates back to his rookie season after Boston took him number 45 in 2003, I hope he comes back. He’s still got something left.

Although I don’t care for his on ice antics which now include dangerous slewfoots and trips that seriously injure players like Sammy Blais, I have no issue with P.K. Subban winning the King Clancy for all his off ice work in the community. He’s a very unselfish player who’s had a great foundation since 2014 when he was with the Canadiens. Subban won’t be back with the Devils. It’ll be interesting to see if he catches on elsewhere. He has a future in broadcasting when it’s over.

As much as I love and respect Carey Price for overcoming his substance abuse issues to return to the net for Montreal, I feel that Kevin Hayes deserved to win the Masterton for what he endured following the tragic death of brother Jimmy Hayes. Both were strong candidates. What Kevin had to handle was even harder and more personal than Price. My heart goes out to the Hayes family.

Aside from Kenan Thompson amusing viewers with his wit and funny bits, he knows the sport. What would you expect from the current SNL star who first came to fame as Russ Tyler in Mighty Ducks 2 with the knuckle puck? He also was part of Kenan and Kel and originally from All That on Nickelodeon. A funny and talented comedian whose career has taken off.

I thought overall, ESPN did a good job. Even if it was only limited to an hour with them cutting away at the end for precious WNBA action, the event was live for the first time in three years.

Thompson and co-host Ashley Brewer were good at presenting awards and bringing attention to special human interest stories such as the courageous Chris Snow of Calgary. He’s battling ALS. Seeing him walk up on stage and speak with his wife and two kids was touching. He’s a true inspiration.

I also loved seeing Brian “Red” Hamilton come up with Nadia Popovici, who saved the life of Hamilton by noticing he had a cancerous mole on the back of his neck while sitting behind the Canucks equipment manager at a Kraken game. The med student and Seattle Kraken fan is special. It’s a remarkable story. They presented the Hart to Matthews.

Rangers Team President and GM Chris Drury is also up for the Jim Gregory Award as GM of the Year. With a strong season that included key additions Barclay Goodrow, Ryan Reaves, Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, Tyler Motte and Justin Braun, plus hiring Gerard Gallant who guided the Rangers to 52 wins and 110 points to finish third for the Jack Adams, Drury is a deserving candidate.

Drury is up against Tampa GM Julien BriseBois and Colorado GM Joe Sakic. While both are good choices, their teams had lofty expectations. They’re supposed to be where they are facing each other for the Stanley Cup. The Rangers over achieved and were the third team remaining in their first Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2017. A credit to both Drury and Gallant along with the players.

Speaking of the Cup, the Avalanche had their 2-0 series lead cut in half by the Lightning, who responded to a 7-0 drubbing by returning the favor with a big 6-2 win on home ice to take Game Three. They can tie the series later tonight in Game Four.

In the first two games, the Avalanche outscored the Lightning 11-3. After Andre Burakovsky won Game One in overtime, they put up a touchdown and kicked an extra point to win Game Two convincingly. Valeri Nichushkin and Cale Makar scored twice while Burakovsky added a goal and assist. Andrei Vasilevskiy gave up a playoff worst seven goals on 30 shots.

Playing without Brayden Point again back home, the Bolts got big games from Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat the other night. Each had a goal and assist. Anthony Cirelli notched a goal. Pat Maroon had a goal and helper. Nikita Kucherov added two assists as did Victor Hedman.

Kucherov was cross-checked by Devon Toews in the third period and left early. He will play tonight along with Corey Perry, who made history by becoming the only player to score a goal for four different teams in the Stanley Cup Finals (Ducks, Stars, Canadiens, Lightning).

Point isn’t expected to return tonight. Riley Nash will dress for a second straight game and play on the fourth line. Nazem Kadri might return for Game Four. If he can, that would be a good boost for the Avs.

Darcy Kuemper will get the start after being chased for five goals on 22 shots. That’ll be an interesting subplot with Vasilevskiy turning it around by stopping 37 of 39 shots in Game Three.

That’s going to do it. It was nice to talk Rangers with Igor getting the Vezina to join Lundqvist, Vanbiesbrouck, Giacomin/Villemure and Kerr. Had they awarded the Vezina differently in 1949-50, Chuck Rayner would’ve also won it. He was the Hart winner that season after going 28-30-11 with a 2.62 GAA and six shutouts in 69 games. Emile Francis was the backup getting into one game.

Rayner would backstop the Rangers to within a goal of winning the Cup. Thet fell in double overtime 4-3 to the Red Wings. Rayner went 7-5 with a 2.25 GAA and one shutout during the playoffs. They defeated the Canadiens in five games and lost to the Red Wings in seven.

Congrats again to Shestyorkin! Хорошего вам дня.

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HARD HITS: A Father’s Day Hockey Celebration

By show of hands, how many fans got into hockey due to their Dad’s? It might not apply to all. But there are certainly plenty of hockey fans who love the sport because our fathers taught us about it.

On a Father’s Day on June 19 where the temperature isn’t sweltering at least here in Staten Island, New York, they’ve played two games of the Stanley Cup Finals. The high powered Avalanche have overwhelmed the two-time defending champion Lightning by taking Games 1-2 by a combined score of 11-3.

Of course, it looks much worse due to Colorado dominating Tampa Bay last night by blowing them out 7-0 in an uncompetitive Game Two. The crazy part is the Bolts got two goals in succession during the second period of Game One to force overtime. But Andre Burakovsky scored early in sudden death to give the Avalanche a huge first win to start the series.

They did whatever they wanted on Saturday night. The seven goals were the most Andrei Vasilevskiy has ever given up in the postseason. A brilliant performer who has always been very mentally tough, the former Vezina and Conn Smythe winner will have to move on very quickly as will his Lightning teammates when a pivotal Game Three takes place tomorrow night at Amalie Arena.

Whether they lost by a goal or a touchdown and extra point last night, it’s still an 0-2 series deficit for the Bolts. They were in this exact scenario against the Rangers during the Eastern Conference Final. Trailing by a pair, they rose up by getting two power play goals from Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos before Ondrej Palat scored the game-winner with 41.6 seconds remaining for a gutsy 3-2 win in Game Three.

The rest is history. The Lightning reeled off four in a row to stun the Rangers and make their third straight appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. It’s still a numb feeling over a week later after what happened in Game Five. The goal by Ryan Lindgren from a near impossible angle beating Vasilevskiy high short side, only to see Mikhail Sergachev tie matters on a similar play. Palat again delivering the crushing blow late in regulation. They’d wrap it up on a fluky Stamkos goal that answered a Frank Vatrano miracle off a face-off win.

Unlike Game Five where I went for a ride after the empty netter from Brandon Hagel, I sat there in stunned disbelief as the Lightning celebrated their hard fought 2-1 clincher in front of the home crowd that included Ranger fans who live down south. They blanketed Mika Zibanejad, who was a hero when he scored the tying goal to force extras in Game Seven of the first round against Pittsburgh.

Zibanejad led the Rangers in scoring with 10 goals, 14 assists and 24 points. One better than Adam Fox. However, neither hit the score sheet over the final three games. The Lightning shut them down along with Chris Kreider, whose memorable season saw him match Adam Graves for the most combined goals (62) by a Ranger for the regular season and postseason. Artemi Panarin, whose memorable overtime clincher on the power play that beat the Penguins, also was kept in check. It wasn’t easy to watch him struggle.

Still, it was a great season and run. One where pride was restored to the Blueshirts. An Original Six franchise I’ve followed for over three decades. All because of Dad. His loyalty to a team that hasn’t had much success since he was a kid in the 50’s, is part of the tradition when it comes to the Rangers.

Dad’s favorite players are Andy Bathgate, Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Ed Giacomin and Brad Park. He could tell you all about Bathgate, who is one of two Rangers to win the Hart Trophy over the last 63 years. He won it in 1958-59. The other is the legendary Mark Messier, who took league MVP in 1991-92. The Captain as he’s affectionately known by fans delivered on his promise by leading the Rangers to the Stanley Cup in ’93-94. The only one this franchise has seen since World War II back in 1940.

As tough a history as our beloved Blueshirts have with only one Cup over the last 81 years (80 seasons due to ’04-05 cancelation), we stay true to the only team we’ve known growing up. It’s in our blood. So, I can still rattle off names like Vanbiesbrouck (Beezer), Sandstrom, Kisio, Granato, Miller, Mullen from the late 80’s. That’s really when I started following the Rangers. They actually had some games televised on the old WWOR, Channel 9 with the legendary Marv Albert on the call.  I even recall Bob Froese as a backup goalie. Talk about a name.

I wouldn’t be the passionate Rangers fan I am today without Dad. He went to games while at St. John’s where he graduated and earned a degree in accounting. He’d also stay and get his Masters.

It was in 1972 that the Rangers had their best chance to win their first Cup in 32 years. But a broken foot to Ratelle saw him miss most of the playoffs before returning for the Stanley Cup Final where he was a shell of himself in a gut wrenching six-game series loss to the hated Bruins. Bobby Orr skated with the Cup at MSG as Dad watched among the crowd. A story that’s been told many times to me and Justin throughout the years.

A huge missed opportunity for a team that boasted the famous GAG Line. It featured Gilbert, Ratelle and Vic Hadfield. The greatest scoring line in Rangers franchise history. Although you could get some debate from hockey historian Stan Fischler, whose knowledge dates back to the Bread Line that featured Bill Cook, brother Bun Cook and Frank Boucher. They won two of the team’s three Cups while playing together.

One thing is certain about that era under the late Emile Francis, who turned the franchise around by rebuilding in the 60’s to form a tremendous team that seriously challenged in the 70’s. While some modern historians view it differently, Dad absolutely hated the blockbuster trade that sent Ratelle and Park to the Bruins for Phil Esposito and Carol Vadnais. Although both Espo and Vadnais had success on Broadway with both helping a rebuilt 1978-79 Rangers upset the Islanders on the way to a Stanley Cup appearance against the mighty Canadiens, all-time fans like Dad never got over trading two of the greatest players in franchise history.

The one that broke the camel’s back was the misguided trade of Rick Middleton to Boston for a washed up Ken Hodge. While the longtime former Bruins teammate of Esposito had nothing left and promptly hung up the skates, Middleton went onto a great career with the old rival Bruins. It really is mystifying that he’s never made the Hockey Hall Of Fame. But they’ll put in checker Guy Carbonneau due to his Cups with Montreal.

Middleton for Hodge might be the worst trade ever made by the Rangers. Of course, there are others. I hated trading Ray Ferraro, Ian Laperierre, Mattias Norstrom and Nathan Lafayette to the Kings for Jari Kurri, Marty McSorley and Shane Churla. A move by then GM Neil Smith that ruined the chemistry the ’95-96 team had. To this day, Ferraro doesn’t understand the trade. After coming back from two down to eliminate Montreal in six, the Rangers were dismantled by both Lemieux and Jagr as the Penguins won in five games.

It’s these kind of moves that stick with you when it comes to rooting for the Rangers. Maybe that’s been instilled in me from our Dad. As close as they came to winning the Cup which also included the memorable Pete Stemkowski goal in triple overtime to beat the Blackhawks in Game Six of the Semifinals at The Garden, the Rangers went onto lose that series in seven games.

The tales of such games are etched in Rangers lore. Even though they fell short. I wonder to this day what it was like for our father to witness Orr, Esposito and the Bruins celebrating their second Cup in three years at MSG. An Orr who was at the peak of his dominance. Whenever we discuss the game’s greatest players, he always puts Orr at the top of the list over Gretzky and Howe, who he of course loved growing up.

Having seen enough clips of Orr, he was something special. He changed the way the game was played by revolutionizing the sport for defensemen. The skating combined with the speed, skill and instincts define why Number 4 is the greatest player at the position. Imagine if he had stayed healthy what he could’ve done. For six years, he dominated by winning two Cups, three consecutive Harts and six of eight straight Norris Trophies. Plus an Art Ross.

It’s astonishing to think injuries to his knee finished Orr at 27. His final season in Boston was only 10 games. He put up 18 points. He’d finish his career with the Blackhawks by playing only 26 more games. When they show highlights, Orr’s overtime winner at 40 seconds to win the Cup over the Blues in 1970 is replayed. It’s an airborne Orr flying in the air in celebration after he scored. A famous shot that is a beautiful image. Like art.

As great as it is to hear Dad talk about Orr, my favorite moment will always be Game Seven of the ’94 Eastern Conference Final. We were all crammed into his office watching the game on our old TV. The Rangers led 1-0 on a brilliant goal by Brian Leetch. They held the one-goal lead throughout a tense third period. But in classic Ranger fashion, they allowed the Devils to tie it when Valeri Zelepukin scored with 7.7 seconds remaining in regulation. It was unbelievable.

In what felt like an eternity, the Rangers and Devils went two overtimes to decide the well played series. There were some close calls along the way. If you watched (who hasn’t?) Sam Rosen’s, “Where’s The Puck,” call it was nerve racking. Luckily, Steve Larmer cleared it out of harm’s way. You also had Mike Richter stop Bobby Holik on a breakaway. He was only able to chip the puck on goal. On the opposite end, Martin Brodeur robbed Mark Messier of a sure winner on the doorstep.

It finally ended when Stephane Matteau got to a loose puck in the Devils’ end and skated around the net where he fortunately had his wrap-around bounce off a sliding Slava Fetisov past Brodeur for the series clincher at 4:24 of the second overtime. I was the first to notice that the puck was in. I had to tell Dad that Matteau scored and they won. I’ll never forget his reaction. Total shock. It was a great moment.

Of course, they blew a three games to one lead against the Canucks, who forced a winner take all Game Seven at MSG on June 14, 1994. I can still recall our history teacher even getting involved by having a friendly little classroom pool on the big game. I opted not to participate due to my playoff superstition. The only thing I knew was that the final score would be 3-2. It was just a feeling. Yes. I had our team winning by a goal. Little did I know how much anxiety it would cause.

Watching Game Seven was intense. You could feel your stomach in knots. But being able to watch it on MSG Network as called by Sam and JD (the great John Davidson) was a treat. At that time, we didn’t know it would be the final year home networks could televise the Cup. It was a very different time. A better one. I’m not exactly a fan of national TV having exclusive rights from Round Two on. That’s garbage.

The ultimate seventh game sure delivered. Sergei Zubov made a great pass for a wide open Leetch, who took his time before firing into an open side with Kirk McLean out of position for the first goal. Then, Alexei Kovalev was able to take a great Zubov pass and feed Adam Graves for a power play goal that made it 2-0 in a great first period.

Easy. Right? Not so fast. You had an unbelievable individual effort by Trevor Linden, who was able to beat Richter for a shorthanded goal that cut the deficit in half for Vancouver. But on what amounted to a mad scramble in front with both Messier and Brian Noonan parked there, the Captain was credited with a power play goal that made it 3-1. To this day, I don’t believe he ever touched it. It looked like Noonan’s goal. Regardless, the Rangers led by two. They were closing in on the Cup.

If you’ve followed this team for a while, then you understand by now that nothing ever comes easy for them. That’s the Rangers Way. When Linden buried his second on a power play early in the third, it was nervous time. There were still over 15 minutes left for the Canucks to tie it. Given how the Devils series was where three games needed sudden death, it wouldn’t have surprised us.

They sure made it interesting. Martin Gelinas came close. But he hit the near goalpost. Then, you had the same Nathan Lafayette all set up for the tying goal. However, his one-timer from the slot rang off the crossbar with Richter fully outstretched. At the time, it looked like he got a piece of it with his glove. It made for quite a nervous call by Rosen. He was at his best along with Davidson, whose signature call, “Oh Baby,” appropriately became the title for the Rangers’ Stanley Cup video on something called VHS. I miss those days.

Following that close call, the Rangers defended better. As they drew closer to winning their first Cup in 54 years, you still had Kevin Collins calling an icing on a Steve Larmer clear where the puck slowed down to the point of Pavel Bure looking defeated. He thought it was over. So did Rosen. The crowd booed. Yet with 1.6 seconds remaining, you still were waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Aside from Rosen’s memorable call that included, “The waiting is over. This one will last a lifetime,” you had Davidson talk about how long these players and fans had waited. I think he was referencing former players like himself. It was JD who backstopped the ’78-79 Rangers to the huge upset of the Islanders before losing in five to the Canadiens Dynasty. He sure understood along with Rosen what it had been like for fans and players.

My favorite part was seeing our proud father reduced to tears of joy. He couldn’t believe it. He thought he’d never see it. That Stanley Cup were for longtime fans like him and even the older generation. Those were the diehards. The ones who stuck it out. Never wavered in their loyalty and support. I look back now and think how lucky Justin and I were to see them win that Cup while we were younger.

Now, it’s almost 30 years later. We’re still waiting for another Cup celebration. They came close in 2014. That was a great run inspired by the death of Marty St. Louis’ Mom France. They dug deep to rally back from a 3-1 second round deficit to beat the Penguins behind Henrik Lundqvist. Then defeated the Canadiens in six. Game Six is the best game we ever attended. A 1-0 clincher. Brian Boyle to Dominic Moore for the game’s only goal, which followed a ridiculous save by Lundqvist on Thomas Vanek.

I never thought in all the seasons we went to games that they’d ever clinch the Prince of Wales Trophy to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. That was truly special. I guess we haven’t been as fortunate as Devils fans on the other side of the Hudson. Even though their team is in a bad way, they’ve seen them win three times including ’03 which Hasan attended Game Seven. That must be like going to heaven. I can only imagine.

Since the heartbreaking loss in 2015 to the Lightning, I no longer care if I’m ever in the building for such a big game. At this point, I just want to see them win another Cup while we’re all around. The run they gave us was exciting. Especially after five years out of the playoffs. Seeing guys like Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren and Igor Shesterkin blossom throughout the season and especially in the postseason was pretty special. Especially with so much of the core homegrown. That includes K’Andre Miller, Braden Schneider, Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko.

For the first time in a while, things are looking up. I can’t say for sure what will happen with the off-season. But our team will be back. They can use the experience they got in the postseason as motivation. They went a lot further than many believed. The heart and character they showed in coming back to beat both the Pens and Hurricanes to reach their first Conference Finals in seven years was tremendous.

To quote the legendary Biggie Smalls, “The sky’s the limit.”

I hope one day soon we can celebrate one more Cup with our Dad. The best person I know. To all out there, Happy Father’s Day!!!!! 💜✨️⭐️

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Never Say Die Blueshirts gave us something special

As I sit here listening to and enjoying a classic show from Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood from MSG back in February ’08 in a time I went with Dad to see them, I’m in a moment of reflection.

Love and appreciation are two of the best things you can have. There are times in life that are truly special. A birthday, a graduation, a new job, a memorable concert or even a great game. It all connects.

For us, Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final back in 2014 versus the Canadiens was that magic moment as a fan of this team. The celebration at the end in our old section 411 was awesome. High fives. Hugs. Plenty of screaming. I once captured it on one of my old mobile phones. No idea what happened to the footage.

Eight years later, it stays with you. For the fortunate long-time Ranger fans, that could be Game Six or Seven from the unbelievable Conference Finals against the Devils in ’94. Or perhaps it’s the deciding Game Seven versus the Canucks. Those who were lucky enough to be at The Garden back then know.

Fans like Anthony Cinque, who made the Stanley Cup video that came out where fans were featured. He’s become one of our favorites due to his incredible knowledge and passion for the sport. The best kind of fan of our beloved Blueshirts. I’m glad over two decades later, we still see him occasionally. Although it was Dad who did this season. I didn’t go back. Maybe next year.

I mention this because before the five-year playoff drought, there was a seven-year itch that lasted almost a decade. All due to greed. That cold stretch between ’98 through ’04 was some of the worst hockey the franchise has ever played. They would tease you to death. Yet we had fun and laughed at how bad they were. Back when MSG was fan friendly.

Not everyone is old enough to go back to those Dark Ages. Even when we had Gretzky take his final lap on a legendary career that will never be equalled, it was in an overtime loss with future Ranger Jaromir Jagr scoring the winner. That at least was special. There were many uglier nights ahead. The term, “Thrashed,” close friend Brian Sanborn used referred to the former Atlanta Thrashers. If you were there, you know.

When I look back at the ugliest moments I’ve been witness to, they include bitter losses to the Devils and Islanders where you even had rival fans feeling sorry for us. How sad. So, when they decided to commit to a rebuild with The Letter, I was good with it. It was time to say goodbye to Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello, Dan Girardi and eventually Henrik Lundqvist. All staples of those Black and Blueshirts teams we loved.

Who knew that Igor Shestyorkin would supplant Lundqvist as the next great goalie? Of course, I followed him closely just as I had Henrik before he came over from Sweden. I knew Igor was pretty good. I liked tracking our team’s top prospects. They don’t all pan out. But if the goalie lives up to expectations, it can turnaround quickly.

Gone are the gloomy days of the David Quinn Error along with the stench from the conclusion of Alain Vigneault when they stuck with him one season too long following the bitter disappointment in the playoffs five years ago. Gerard Gallant replaced Quinn and turned this team around along with Chris Drury, who got help from former architects Jeff Gorton and the always beloved John Davidson.

I can’t think of too many people who weren’t for hiring Gallant last summer. He was a guy who got dismissed by a greedy Golden Knights, who lost their identity. He had also once been left outside to fetch a taxi by the Panthers. It didn’t make sense. Here was a good coach who’s had success in the league, having guided the expansion Knights to the Stanley Cup Finals their inaugural season.

The Rangers were in need of a more experienced coach behind the bench who could be a step up from Quinn. Not that everything he did was bad. He was able to get more from Mika Zibanejad, who has now become one of the game’s better overall players. Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren developed under his watch. Chris Kreider grew in stature to take on more of a leadership role once Marc Staal left.

Featuring Artemi Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider, Fox and Shesterkin, who took over the reigns from Lundqvist, the pieces were in place. Even if at times Quinn made puzzling lineup decisions on where to play Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere, you could see that the future was bright. At least he paired up K’Andre Miller with Jacob Trouba. A pair that improved leaps and bounds under Gallant in what turned into a great season.

It was during ’21-22 that things started to take shape. Key additions Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Reaves helped change the dynamic. Adding veteran pieces strengthened the locker room and changed the way the Rangers played. Even though they lost Sammy Blais to a serious injury, Gallant was able to get his team to buy in. They didn’t lose three games in a row in regulation until the final week after they wrapped up second place in the Metropolitan Division.

By that point, Drury made critical upgrades with the acquisitions of Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano and Justin Braun to supply Gallant with a more complete roster that could go far in the playoffs. But even after a Vezina season from Shestyorkin, they dug out of a 3-1 series hole to rally and defeat the Penguins in a closely fought first round.

It was the way they did it that really stood out. With so many doubters who picked against them due to the battle tested Pens led by Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, the Blueshirts picked themselves off the deck to come back and win Games 5-7 to make history. No team had ever rallied from such a deficit by trailing in each pressure packed elimination game.

They did it in epic fashion. By getting a game-tying goal from Zibanejad with 5:45 left in regulation on a make shift line that included Copp and Lafreniere, they found a way to force overtime. It was Panarin who won it at 4:46 of sudden death on the power play to send the Rangers and Garden into a frenzy. His seeing eye shot snuck past Tristan Jarry, who had just returned from injury to play Game Seven. That clutch goal for a visibly banged up Panarin allowed the Rangers to believe they could make a run.

They then battled the division champion Hurricanes in a closely fought second round series. Unlike the Penguins, who opened it up more and crashed the net to make life tough on Shesterkin, the defensive minded Canes shrunk the ice. They took away time and space from Zibanejad, Kreider, Fox, Panarin, Vatrano, Ryan Strome and Copp.

Even tougher, the Rangers blew a one-goal lead after two periods to lose in tough fashion 2-1 in overtime on a goal from Ian Cole to start the series. They then couldn’t generate much offense in a 2-0 loss where former Ranger Brendan Smith scored the shorthanded winner to help Antti Raanta get the shutout. That put them in an 0-2 hole with the next two games at MSG.

With their backs to the wall, all the resilient and scrappy Blueshirts did was sweep Games 3-4 by outscoring the Hurricanes 7-2. Although Game Three was close, they got goals from Zibanejad and Kreider with Motte sealing it with an empty netter. All in support of Shestyorkin, who came up huge by making 43 saves.

In a more complete game where they jumped on the Canes, who got into penalty trouble, the Rangers easily took Game Four 4-1 to square the series. But there was no momentum due to home ice. After Zibanejad notched a power play goal to tie up Game Five late in the first period, it was all Hurricanes. Goals from Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov along with a dominant defense held them to just 17 shots as Carolina put the Rangers on the brink.

Facing elimination for the fourth time, they rose up to the challenge by taking Game Six at home 5-2. Never seriously threatened following first period tallies from Motte and Zibanejad on a shaky Raanta, Chytil scored twice in the second as they evened it up to send the series back to Raleigh for a do or die Game Seven.

It was during the seventh and deciding game that they played their best game. Taking advantage of undisciplined penalties by the Canes, Fox and Kreider cashed in on the power play. With Shestyorkin locked in, Strome buried a two-on-one short side on injury replacement Pyotr Kochetkov to help break it open.

A highlight reel breakaway goal from Kreider early in the third provided some cushion. Chytil would get his third goal in two games to answer a Vincent Trocheck power play goal to really finish the Canes off. Even after Max Domi tallied to cut it to two with 3:57 remaining, Copp got an empty netter to seal the big second round win.

It was a series that came down to Igor and special teams. The Rangers were better in each key area to prevail. They also had more skill and scoring depth with the Kid Line of Chytil, Lafreniere and Kakko providing offense at critical moments.

They also got strong play out of Lindgren, who battled an ankle injury throughout the playoffs. The Rangers’ warrior got stronger as it went on. So did Miller, whose poise really shined in the second round victory by teaming with Trouba to help neutralize Sebastian Aho and Teravainen. Trouba’s big hit that concussed rookie Seth Jarvis really hurt the Canes in Game Seven. He was their best forward.

The run wouldn’t have been possible without Lindgren returning in the first round with the Rangers trailing three games to one. His grit and intangibles really made a big difference on the blue line. Motte being able to return for the conclusion of that series and Goodrow doing the same for the second round really made a noticeable difference. Having those key depth players who are strong defensively and on the penalty kill were pivotal.

When your team makes a deep run like the Rangers did, it’s not only the top guns who lead the way. It’s also about having enough high character role players who are effective and provide energy. While Zibanejad, Kreider and Fox received most of the accolades along with Panarin, it was the support provided by Copp, Vatrano, Strome (prior to pelvis injury that really limited him vs Tampa), Lafreniere, Chytil, Kakko, Motte, Goodrow and Braun that really gave the team a lift.

By getting everyone to play their roles, Turk got the franchise back to the Conference Finals for the first time in seven years. They met the championship Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.

Early on, it looked like the Rangers would prevail. Their younger legs were noticeable early in the series. After dismantling the Lightning 6-2 in a great Game One where Chytil and Vatrano continued to score, the second game was more like how it was supposed to go. On the strength of goals from Miller, Kakko and Zibanejad, they hung on for a 3-2 win over the Bolts, who came on in the second half to make it close.

The turning point wouldn’t come until they were up by two midway through Game Three in Tampa. On power play goals from Zibanejad and Kreider, they were leading 2-0 in the second period. One more goal and they’d have surely gone up three-zip with Shestyorkin in the series.

Instead, a Trouba penalty really flipped the script. After Steven Stamkos set up Nikita Kucherov on the power play over a minute later, a second Trouba minor in the first minute of the third came back to haunt them. When Stamkos tied the game with a laser, it was all Lightning. They finally got the crushing game-winner from Ondrej Palat with 41.6 seconds left to take Game Three. That foreshadowed an even darker script full of Lightning Bolts.

After they played even better to win Game Four 4-1 with both Kucherov and Stamkos all over the score sheet with Palat, they sent the series back to MSG tied at two. It set up a pivotal Game Five on Broadway.

For a while, it really looked like the first goal would matter. When Lindgren snuck a shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy high blocker from an impossible angle with Vatrano in front, it felt like luck was on the Rangers’ side. But a Kevin Rooney clearing attempt around the boards was intercepted by Mikhail Sergachev, whose shot snuck past Shestyorkin with 2:26 left in the second to tie it up.

Predictably, the third period was carefully played by both sides. Neither wanted to make a mistake that could cause their demise. It was understandable.

The best chance came when Lindgren again had an opening in front. But his rebound of a wide Fox shot off the end boards was denied by a sprawling Vasilevskiy. Strome would get a great chance down low. But he couldn’t quite one-time the Copp backhand pass that just was a bit behind. While many clueless fans gave him a lot of crap for that miss, they had no idea how hurt he was. That would be revealed earlier the next week.

Everyone knew that the next goal would decide the intensely fought game. Unfortunately, some Lightning forecheck pressure led to a seeing eye shot from Sergachev deflecting in off of Palat for the gut wrenching winner with 1:50 left in regulation. Brandon Hagel would score into an open net with under a minute to go to send the building home.

I was so defeated that I immediately left the house and took a ride to a familiar quiet place I’d once visited in 2012. So, I missed Lafreniere losing a scrap to Stamkos and the other chaos that transpired. It didn’t matter. It was that kind of hard defeat in the biggest game this team has played since another crushing home loss to the same opponent some seven years ago.

Everyone has their own unique way in dealing with such a loss. That’s sports in a nutshell. Deep down, I knew it was over the moment Palat scored. The Lightning are a great team for a reason. They’ve won two consecutive Stanley Cups in a cap era where they lost their whole third line that included Goodrow, who was on our side. It’s a credit to that organization along with Jon Cooper that they are trying to make history against a formidable opponent in the Avalanche for a three-peat. I respect it.

Game Six would be the end of the road for our beloved heroes. Running on empty, Gallant chose to dress a banged up Strome and play Dryden Hunt with Kakko and Reaves sitting out. The less said about it, the better.

Even though the same tired questions were asked following the 2-1 defeat that saw Stamkos get one of the luckiest bounces I’ve ever seen after Vatrano tied it, they weren’t winning that game unless the top guns stepped up. They couldn’t.

That’s how well the Lightning played. There was literally no time or space for Zibanejad, Kreider, Panarin or Fox operate. Even with Gallant splitting up Zibanejad and Kreider for two periods, nothing worked. They were dominated at five-on-five by the checking line of Anthony Cirelli, Hagel and Alex Killorn. It was the play of that trio along with Stamkos between Palat and Kucherov that altered the series.

Sometimes, you simply get beat. In the end, the Lightning proved they were the better team. But as they protected their one-goal lead to advance to a third straight Stanley Cup Finals, all I could think about was how proud I was of our team.

It was on display during the handshake line between the two teams. You could see the respect shown by the Lightning players and coaches with Cooper later paying a high compliment to what the Rangers did. Going seven in the first two rounds and then having the champs on the ropes was admirable. They just didn’t have enough left to get it done.

Let’s not forget where this team was. They weren’t in the playoffs the last five years. I don’t count the silly Qualifying Series they got blitzed in two long years ago. That really feels like longer due to how the time has moved. That was then. This is now.

I’ll readily admit that I struggled to find the words to finish this post. I needed some time off to compose my thoughts. I also only caught half of Game One the other night. It is much harder to watch the Stanley Cup when the Rangers were so close. It’s definitely a great match-up. I’d like to see the Lightning make history. I respect the heck out of that franchise. They’re built the way our team is going to be.

I feel like most of the true fans of our team have class. We aren’t bitter sore losers like another unnamed rival team who are stuck in the past. That’s not me anyway.

In some poetic way, I was actually relieved there was no game on June 14th due to ESPN. That would’ve been unbearable. I also hope Sean McDonough never works this far again for hockey. He isn’t exciting enough to be the lead announcer. Ray Ferraro is great in his role. Despite the foolish nature that he’s anti Ranger. Gee wiz.

I have nothing but praise for how the leaders of this team handled this season. They never panicked. Seeing Zibanejad become the trusted top center who can lead the way in such big games was great. He and Kreider were the definition of on an off ice leaders of our T-E-A-M.

So too were Fox, Trouba, Strome and Lindgren, who deserves an ‘A’ on his jersey. He leads by example on the ice. Kind of like Jeff Beukeboom and Dan Girardi.

I excluded Panarin because he had an unsteady postseason. While he did have the clutch series clicher against the Pens, and wound up with 16 points, he was too predictable. Whether it was due to the rumored shoulder issue he had, Panarin was too hesitant to shoot the puck and turned the puck over far too much. He’s likely going to have a new center with Strome likely gone. More is expected of our highest paid star player.

With Drury already making moves in the off-season by re-signing Vitaly Kravtsov to a one-year, $875,000 one-way deal and getting Blais re-upped for a shade over $1.5 million, he’s proactive. That’s positive. He isn’t wasting no time getting started.

I’ll be curious to see what happens with Kakko, who’s a restricted free agent this summer. He expressed disappointment with being a scratch for the final game and wants to use it as motivation. Good. He shouldn’t get more than a bridge deal around $2 million per. Prove yourself.

We know certain players won’t be back. The organization has tough decisions ahead with a choice between Strome and the younger Copp, who should get a little more due to his age and versatility. He fit in well. So did Vatrano. At best, maybe they can bring back half of the four key veteran forwards. I would lean towards Copp and Motte, who brings an element to the bottom line that’s needed.

I’m also interested to see if Drury can dump Patrik Nemeth and his $2.5 million salary by adding either a pick or prospect to free up necessary space. He was a bust. They’ll still need a veteran D to help Braden Schneider and either Zac Jones or Matthew Robertson.

Alex Georgiev will move on. Only restricted this summer before he can turn unrestricted next year, he won’t be back. They can either see if a team is interested in coughing up a mid-round pick and then extend him, or turn him loose. There might not be much interest due to that scenario. Likely destinations are Edmonton, Detroit, Montreal and Buffalo.

It’s going to be strange for a while. It’s definitely different without being able to watch the Rangers play a big game. This run was truly special. It’s too bad they can’t keep everyone. But with the salary cap only increasing by a million up to $82.5 million, that’s the reality.

Is Kravtsov really going to return or will Drury trade him? He can’t have a lot of value. It might make more sense to keep him and see what he is capable of in training camp and beyond. We’ll see. I don’t see Kakko going anywhere. Not unless there’s another young player coming back like Kirby Dach.

Thanks again go out to the Rangers for a great season. #NoQuitInNY

#LGR

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Eastern Conference Final: Lightning eliminate tired Rangers with a 2-1 win in Game Six to take the series, Shesterkin brilliant in defeat, Bolts go for three-peat versus Avalanche

Losing sucks. It’s tough when your team comes so close. Sometimes, you have to lose in heartbreaking fashion to finally win.

Unfortunately, that’s what happened to the Rangers tonight in Tampa. Playing their sixth elimination game after losing Game Five in gut wrenching fashion, they were thoroughly dominated by the two-time defending champion Lightning, who won 2-1 in Game Six to advance to their third consecutive Stanley Cup Finals.

Even though they lost by a single goal to drop the Eastern Conference Final in six games, it wasn’t even that close. They were never in control. The Lightning played a great game to defeat a lethargic looking Rangers, who didn’t have a lot left in the tank.

The absurd aspect is they only trailed 1-0 when Alexis Lafreniere drew a holding minor on Steven Stamkos with 8:15 left. Given a second chance on the five-on-four, they found a way to tie the game. Off a clean face-off win by Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano beat Andrei Vasilevskiy with a one-timer for a power play goal to tie the score with 6:53 remaining in the third period.

But just as quickly as his shot beat Vasilevskiy, the Rangers’ comeback chances were gone. It took the Lightning only 21 seconds to surge back ahead. Stamkos took a feed from Ondrej Palat and had his shot go off Igor Shesterkin and bounce over and in for the crushing series clincher with 6:32 left in regulation.

On a night Shesterkin was truly special by making several ridiculous saves on his way to 29 in a lopsided game, Stamkos made the difference by beating him twice. The sad part is both goals were of the fluky variety. It speaks to how utterly brilliant Igor was. He turned away Anthony Cirelli and other Bolts on breakaways with ease.

To be blunt, it should’ve been a blowout. That’s how well the Lightning played. They were much faster, stronger and grittier than the Rangers, who looked like a punch drunk boxer out on their feet. They played for the 20th time over 40 days. If fatigue was a factor in losing the last four games of the series, not everyone admitted it.

Gerard Gallant acknowledged that it could’ve been a factor in his team only scoring one five-on-five goal the final four games. That’s 240 minutes. However, leading scorer Mika Zibanejad, who was held off the score sheet the last three games with Chris Kreider, wouldn’t take the bait. Close to tears, he said it had nothing to do with fatigue.

We know several key players played through injuries. None more so than Ryan Lindgren, who overcame what was ailing him to will himself through after missing time in the first round. Without the ultimate warrior, the Rangers don’t get this far. He was an inspiration.

One question Gallant will have to answer is why he played a clearly hurt Ryan Strome on Saturday night. He could barely skate. Eventually, the soon to be unrestricted free agent center tapped out. He couldn’t go anymore in the third after leaving the bench during the second.

While Turk was justified in not answering that question following such a tough series defeat, he does need to further explain himself. Some of his lineup decisions were puzzling. In fact, even the Rangers beat writers were confused as to whether Strome was in or out. He tried to gut it out.

That meant Kaapo Kakko was a healthy scratch. A decision that didn’t make sense. He had good chemistry with Lafreniere and Filip Chytil, who were key contributors during this run. Was it worth sitting Kakko out to break up the Kid Line? A line that was effective at even strength.

Also dressing after sitting out the last 16 games was Dryden Hunt. I don’t get the fascination with him. He’s an honest player. But hardly played during the postseason. Why insert him over Ryan Reaves, who up until Game Five had played the whole playoffs? Very bizarre.

Kevin Rooney was in again on the fourth line with Tyler Motte and Hunt. The top line was broken up. It was Zibanejad in between Lafreniere and Vatrano. Kreider was on a third line with Chytil and Barclay Goodrow.

The mismatched lines didn’t help. Eventually, Gallant reunited Kreider with Zibanejad and Vatrano. He also tried Artemi Panarin up on the first line. It was too little, too late. If not for the second power play they converted on a face-off play, they’d have been shutout. That’s how bad the offense was.

The mind-boggling part is Stamkos’ second was actually stopped by Shesterkin. However, the puck took a funny hop up in the air and just over past the goal line as the Lightning captain’s skate made contact with Igor. But the video review by the league confirmed the obvious. It was an unlucky break.

Considering how well they forechecked and defended, that was enough of a cushion to beat the Rangers. They even had trouble pulling Shesterkin due to the Lightning pressure. Once they did, all that got through was a tough Zibanejad low one-timer that Vasilevskiy padded away with nine seconds remaining. The final seconds ticked off as the Rangers could only hang their heads.

It was that kind of game. One that confused many before it started. With nobody knowing whether or not Strome would play, Kakko was penciled in on the second line. But that turned out to be false. Even the Rangers On MSG had it wrong.

Imagine how fans felt. Nobody knew what the heck was going on. Only that for some reason, Hunt was listed on the fourth line in a do or die game. It was mystifying. Gallant had lines he never even tried during the entire season. Why?

I could understand splitting up Zibanejad and Kreider to try to balance the lineup out. But subtracting Kakko just left a funny feeling. Not that he would’ve been the difference. But why separate a good line in such a big game.

It was also painfully obvious to everyone that the second line wasn’t the same with a visibly hobbled Strome. That’s the line that needed an adjustment. But Gallant didn’t. Even with Panarin skating well again, he had little help. It made it easier for the Lightning to defend.

At the start of the game, Gallant had the new Zibanejad line against the Anthony Cirelli line who dominated them over the last four games. It was that adjustment from Jon Cooper along with shifting Stamkos back to center between Palat and Nikita Kucherov that turned it around. Cirelli dominated the match-up against Zibanejad.

In fact, the Cirelli line with Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn spent several long shifts deep in the Rangers’ zone. That put Zibanejad, Lafreniere and Vatrano on the defensive throughout a lopsided first period that saw the Lightning dictate the terms.

After an initial first shot from Lafreniere on Vasilevskiy, the Cirelli unit pinned them in often. It didn’t matter which defense pair was out. K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba had a tough time getting pucks out due to the Zibanejad line struggles. They turned over the puck repeatedly.

Much of the Bolts’ work was done along the boards. They won most of the battles for loose pucks and really made life difficult. This was a theme. They’d cycle the puck and set up good shots with traffic in front of Shesterkin. That tenacious style wore on the Rangers.

Although they didn’t get to Shesterkin early, the Lightning were shooting pucks often and doubled up the Rangers in attempts (25-12) during the first. They held an 11-7 edge in shots and out-chanced the Rangers by a wide margin.

That included a few dangerous opportunities for Cirelli and Killorn on a strong shift where they had the Zibanejad line, Lindgren and Adam Fox on the ropes. Unfortunately, that was a common occurrence.

Stamkos was flying during this game. He got a tough backhand that Shesterkin handled to keep it scoreless. His line with Palat and Kucherov would buzz throughout.

After spending very little time in the Lightning end, the new third line had a good shift. They actually were able to generate a forecheck. It led to a Chytil backhand up high that Vasilevskiy stayed with. He then turned aside Goodrow. Kreider provided a lot of grunt work during that shift.

Whenever Strome was on the ice for a shift with Panarin and Copp, he was noticeably struggling. It was sad to watch him. He really shouldn’t have played. He’s been a good team guy and very good Ranger since Jeff Gorton stole him from Edmonton. It’s too bad this is probably the way he’ll go out. I wish him luck.

When Cirelli, Hagel and Killorn weren’t circling around the Rangers’ zone like killer bees, there was plenty of physicality. You had Trouba finish a check on Cirelli. He was a booing target of the fans. Erik Cernak lined up Lafreniere. He had a solid series playing his usual gritty style.

One of the best chances came halfway through the period. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare was able to get a tricky deflection on Shesterkin that he padded away. Ross Colton then missed a rebound.

The best opportunity the Rangers had was when Lafreniere got behind the Tampa defense for a backhand that Vasilevskiy turned away. It was his best save of the first.

On more sustained pressure, Cirelli came in on Shesterkin for a breakaway and tried to slide a backhand around him. But he easily got across to make the kick save to keep it scoreless with over a minute left.

Despite the Lightning having a clear edge in play, the game was tied. During the intermission segment on ESPN, Mark Messier didn’t like the Rangers’ energy. He also second guessed Gallant’s lines that were put in a blender. It was good insight.

Even following time off, the Rangers immediately allowed Cirelli to walk in and get another point blank chance 18 seconds into the second period. However, Shesterkin again robbed him. After a pair of Miller shot blocks, Hagel had a shot go off the goalpost. That line was by far the best.

The Bolts continued to press the attack. On a two-on-one, Stamkos had Kucherov for what looked like a sure goal. But Shesterkin somehow managed to get across to deny the Kucherov backhand redirect for a fantastic save. He was incredible in this game.

While the Lightning came in waves to generate quality chances, it was a lot of one and none done for the Blueshirts. They looked like they were skating in quicksand. The only player who got good shots on Vasilevskiy was Chytil. He had a very good postseason. His stock is up.

Following a routine save for Vasilevskiy on a long try from Hunt, Rooney got into a scrum with Game Five hero Mikhail Sergachev. They each got the gate for roughing, leading to some four-on-four.

Even this was awful. The Rangers were tentative. Zibanejad and Kreider were reunited, but did zilch against Cirelli and Killorn. Panarin got a shot that Vasilevskiy stopped when he and Copp worked together against Stamkos and Kucherov. It was a whole lot of nothing.

Following a Shesterkin stop on Sergachev, Chytil got a third shot on Vasilevskiy that he handled. On that shift, Lafreniere joined Goodrow and Chytil due to Kreider taking a shift with Zibanejad at four-on-four. It really would’ve made better sense to keep Lafreniere there.

As the offense continued to go at a snails pace, the Bolts kept coming close. Cirelli had another chance sail wide. He could’ve easily had two or three goals. Then, a bad turnover allowed Pat Maroon to get a shot in front that Shesterkin denied. He was in a zone.

Just when you thought you’d seen it all, a harmless rush by Stamkos led to an innocent looking shot from the outside beating Shesterkin stick side at 10:43 of the second. On the play, Palat got the puck up for him at center. Strome pulled up. But Lindgren was on Stamkos when he let go of his wrist shot that fooled Shesterkin.

It was very hard to figure out what happened. Maybe Stamkos’ shot fooled him due to him getting it off with Lindgren there. He didn’t pick it up until it was too late. That really felt like game over. That’s how dominant the Lightning were at five-on-five.

Refs Chris Rooney and Jean Hebert were letting everything go. They missed a pair of Lightning infractions in the first. Then let go of two Rangers’ penalties in the second. That included a huge hit by Trouba where he caught Corey Perry on the train tracks. The live view made it look like the puck was there. But it was interference. Dave Jackson said those are hard to pick up.

When Trouba wasn’t getting booed, you had Shesterkin doing his best to keep the Rangers alive. He made a good stop on a Zach Bogosian backhand. He really held up his end of the bargain. Too bad the Ranger offense looked allergic to shooting and forechecking. It was hard to watch.

Panarin then got his stick up on Cernak to hand the Lightning the game’s first power play. But like most of the series except for the turning point in Game Three (they’ll regret that one for sure), they didn’t do a whole lot with it. Credit the Rangers penalty kill for holding them to one shot.

Predictably, they were again way more dangerous at even strength. Palat nearly got one. He really killed our team. It was his game-winner with 41.6 seconds left in Game Three that changed things. Then his backbreaking winner that decided Game Five. He was the best player in the series. No disrespect to Kucherov or Stamkos. It wss Palat that delivered in crunch time.

Shesterkin would also deny Killorn in tight. Ray Ferraro couldn’t believe some of the saves Igor was making. It was special. It’s too bad it didn’t lead to them stealing this game and forcing a deciding Game Seven.

With under two minutes left, Vasilevskiy made a rare stop on Vatrano. He was one of the most effective forwards. He didn’t look slow. For the period, the Rangers only got six shots through. They were being outshot 23-12 through two periods.

In the third, the Lightning again got the quick start. This time, Shesterkin victimized Hagel, who like his line mates had to be wondering what they had to do to score a goal.

Nearly two and a half minutes into the period, Perry high-sticked Chytil. He was lucky it didn’t draw blood. It was pretty reckless. Instead, it was a two-minute minor.

How to describe the first power play? Hideous. Way too predictable. Even though the top unit with Chytil replacing Strome had setup time, they got five shots blocked by a bunch of determined Bolts. One of which included Ryan McDonagh. He was very good defensively blocking six shots. Cernak also blocked Zibanejad twice.

When play returned to even strength, Lindgren rejected a Stamkos shot following a hit. He led the Rangers with four blocks in 22:33. What a gamer. Maybe next year, we’ll see an ‘A’ sewed on his jersey. He deserves one of the alternates.

Following yet another clutch save from Shesterkin on Hagel, the Rangers finally had their one shot at scoring. Trouba took a good low shot that rebounded off Vasilevskiy right to Copp. But his backhand was denied by the pad of Vasilevskiy with 13:16 remaining to cheers.

That felt like it. But the Lightning kept missing on scoring chances. Colton and Nick Paul missed the net. Then Cirelli was robbed again by Igor. He never allowed them to get any breathing room.

Eventually, Lafreniere sucked Stamkos into grabbing him for a holding minor with 8:15 left. Even though he didn’t like the call, it made up for the misses earlier in the game.

The top unit nearly drew even. But Kreider couldn’t quite tip in a Zibanejad shot pass from his spot at the side. Normally, that’s money. It just wouldn’t go in what was Kreider’s 100th career playoff game as a Ranger. Only Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have more.

When it looked like it was hopeless after Vasilevskiy stopped a Zibanejad shot, out came the second unit. This time, Copp beat Bellemare clean to get the puck back for a quick Vatrano one-timer that beat Vasilevskiy to tie the game with 6:53 left.

It was shocking. I don’t know about anyone else in our Rangers Twitter chat group that includes Moka. I didn’t expect it. It happened so fast that I couldn’t believe it. A miracle.

But before you could even think another improbable comeback by the never say die Blueshirts, they gave it right back. On a play through the neutral zone, Stamkos dusted Trouba to receive a Kucherov feed on a two-on-one. His initial shot was saved by Shesterkin. But somehow, the puck hopped up and over to go in with 6:32 left.

It was hard to fathom. Both Stamkos goals weren’t the kind you’d have expected. Eerily similar to the Sergachev goal and Palat winner last game. Maybe that’s the only way to beat Shesterkin. He was superb. Look at the last four Bolts’ goals that got past him. All very fluky.

That’s hockey. It’s a game of inches. Sometimes, the bounces go your way. Sometimes, they don’t. One thing I want to make clear. The Lightning were better than the Rangers. They earned it.

Following Stamkos’ second that answered Vatrano only 21 seconds later, the Lightning went for the kill. But Shesterkin wasn’t having it. He again stopped Hagel and then made a save on Kucherov.

After a delay in the action due to a repair of the glass, Lafreniere had a shot go high and over the top. Then Copp missed.

There weren’t many chances in the last five minutes. The Lightning checked very well. They took a lot of ice away. It’s a big reason they shutdown Zibanejad, Kreider, Panarin and Fox. They found it hard to do anything.

With Shesterkin finally off for an extra attacker, Panarin got a long shot on Vasilevskiy that he handled. Both he and Zibanejad had shots blocked. Gallant took his timeout with 17 seconds left.

Copp was able to win the offensive draw from Stamkos. That allowed Fox to make one more pass across for a Zibanejad shot that Vasilevskiy kicked away. As they scrambled behind the net, time wound down.

As the Lightning celebrated on the ice by congratulating Vasilevskiy, all the Rangers could do was look skyward and wonder what could’ve been. Zibanejad and Lafreniere both had somber looks. It really was too bad it had to end. But that’s sports.

They captured the traditional handshake. During it, Shesterkin got plenty of love from Lightning players including Vasilevskiy and Kucherov. Kreider and McDonagh had a nice moment. Zibanejad got some respect from countryman Victor Hedman, who missed the end of the second due to getting clipped by Lafreniere.

Goodrow was last in line. He shared some warm embraces with his former teammates, who love and respect him. It wss nice. It’s gotta be tough to be on the other side. The Rangers don’t get this far without Goodrow, who showed a lot of heart coming back from the bad foot. Ditto Motte, who I hope they keep.

Those are the kind of gritty players you need to reach this stage. It might not have gone their way. But the Rangers gave us a great season. They provided fans with many exciting moments. The first time back in the playoffs and they showed so much heart and character.

In the end, they really lived up to their nickname. #NoQuitInNY … thank you to the 2021-22 New York Rangers for an amazing run. Ig-or! Ig-or! Ig-or!

The Lightning now go for a three-peat. Something unheard of these days. They will go up against the well rested Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Finals. A very fast and skilled team that might be without Nazem Kadri. The Bolts made it minus Brayden Point. He may or may not be back.

As much as it hurts right now, that should be a great series. Lots of star power. Maybe I’ll do a preview if I feel up to it. I’d like to see the Lightning make history. I have friends on that side. I respect the team they have. It’s so hard to get back. They lost their whole third line due to the cap. If they pull it off, it’s right up there with any Dynasty.

I have written enough. I’ll be back in two days with more. Once we know what the injuries were, it’ll help put into the perspective what this team accomplished. Thank you to our Blueshirts for an unbelievable year! I can’t wait for 2023. I think we can win it all next season. Why not!

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Lightning Strikes: Palat’s winner with 1:50 left in regulation puts Rangers on the brink in gut wrenching Game Five, Offense continues to fire blanks, Do or Die in Game Six

If this was the plan, it sure didn’t go well. On another crushing goal from Ranger killer Ondrej Palat with 1:50 left in regulation, the Rangers lost a heartbreaking Game Five to the Lightning 3-1 before a stunned MSG.

Gone is the record eight-game winning streak that they set this postseason. Also gone is any wiggle room. The Rangers are now facing playoff extinction against the stingy defending champs who have held them to one five-on-five goal over the last three games.

They trail the series three games to two. It’s do or die when they play Game Six at Tampa on Saturday. It’ll be their sixth elimination game. The Rangers will put their 5-0 record on the line when the Eastern Conference Final returns to Amalie Arena. They must show the same determination and resiliency to force a deciding Game Seven back at home on Tuesday, June 14.

That is a long way off. So is the suddenly slumping offense that only has beaten Andrei Vasilevskiy four times on the last 90 shots over the last three losses. He made 24 saves on 25 shots tonight to win his third straight game against hard luck loser Igor Shesterkin (24 saves on 26 shots).

Once again, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider couldn’t get anything going. Gerard Gallant allowed them to be matched up during several shifts by Jon Cooper’s second line comprised of Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel. Zibanejad and Kreider couldn’t get free. Frank Vatrano had the best chance in a tie game, but his backhand wrap-around was denied by Vasilevskiy in the third period.

Although he didn’t register a point, Artemi Panarin had his best game of the series. He was around the puck a lot making plays both offensively and defensively. However, despite three shots including a very tough shot through a screen when the Rangers led by a goal that Vasilevskiy made a big save on, he wasn’t able to make the difference.

Neither were Andrew Copp or Ryan Strome. The best opportunity came when Copp took a Panarin feed and had Strome open down low. But his backhand pass just missed connecting for a go-ahead goal. That was the best chance they had.

Instead, the Lightning found a way to finally establish puck pressure down low. After the Rangers failed to clear the zone twice, Victor Hedman got a pass across for a Mikhail Sergachev shot that changed direction off Palat to beat Shesterkin with 1:50 left in the third period. It was eerily similar to Sergachev’s tying goal that came with 2:26 remaining in the second period.

Sergachev picked an opportunistic time to have his best game. He had a goal and assist in 22:46 to help lift the Bolts to the first road victory of the series. He got extended time due to Ryan McDonagh missing 14 minutes due to an injury sustained on a battle behind his net with Kreider. But he did return to play down the stretch.

The only goal scored by a Ranger came from Ryan Lindgren, who surprised Vasilevskiy from a tough angle to beat him high blocker side unassisted at 10:29 of the second. He had Tyler Motte in front battling for position when he got his first career postseason goal.

It looked like that goal might be the difference. But as it turned out, it was a huge Vasilevskiy save on Panarin that really helped the Lightning come back. That and ironically another key save to deny Lindgren on the doorstep in a tie game during the third proved to be the turning points.

On a night they got back both Strome and Filip Chytil, it wasn’t enough to get a win. Gallant also opted to healthy scratch Ryan Reaves for the first time this postseason. He kept Kevin Rooney in to play on the fourth line with Barclay Goodrow and Motte. Goodrow hasn’t been as effective in this round. Maybe that blocked shot he had isn’t helping. He’s a gamer.

Adam Fox was again held in check by the Lightning. He did create one good opportunity on a forecheck during the third. But had his shot missed wide before Vasilevskiy got over to make the clutch stop on a pinching Lindgren down low. That sequence was one they’ll rue if they can’t win Game Six.

Ditto for the Copp to Strome play that he just couldn’t get into position for to bury the pass. There was also a near perfect passing play earlier in the game where Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko nearly had Chytil down low for a put away. Those are the ones they needed to score on.

The crazy part is if you look at the three goals each side got at even strength, they were on fluky plays. Lindgren who connected on his first from a near impossible angle with Motte creating a distraction in front.

The tying Sergachev goal where he intercepted a Rooney clear and fired a seeing eye shot past a Corey Perry screen that Shesterkin never picked up. Then the Palat game-winner where it was another innocent looking Sergachev shot that the gritty Palat somehow got a piece of to put the Bolts up a goal at 18:10.

With the Rangers scrambling around as Shesterkin came off for Lafreniere, Hagel salted it away on a Nikita Kucherov pass with 59 seconds left to send the fans to the exits. What a tough way to lose. Especially when overtime was looming.

In many ways, this reminded me of Games Five and Seven in 2015. The only difference being that in those excruciating losses, the Rangers never scored. In this one, they got the first goal. But were unable to build upon it. They let the championship caliber Lightning hang around long enough to steal it.

There’s something about Jon Cooper. He just figures out a way to take away a team strength. The Rangers’ biggest is their speed. They’ve been unable to get any odd-man rushes the last two games and were limited to one power play on Thursday night. Although refs Wes McCauley and Jean Hebert missed an obvious grab by Jan Rutta on Kakko that should’ve been called.

Outside of that miss, I don’t have any complaints about the officiating. They let the two teams play. Even if I didn’t particularly care for the call on K’Andre Miller, who continues to play like a savvy veteran, the Rangers killed off that penalty. They went two-for-two.

It isn’t about the special teams. It’s about five-on-five. They aren’t creating enough shots or chances to win this series. Save the excuses. Stop trying to pin it on the refs. If they can’t fix the scoring issue at even strength by Saturday night, that’ll be why this run ends.

It’s nitty-gritty time. They have to dig deeper than ever before. Get a game at their barn where Cooper will dictate the match-ups. That means Zibanejad and Kreider better step up along with Panarin and Fox. Their best players have to be their best players regardless of all of that.

Think back to Game Six at East Rutherford in 1994. That’s what they’re facing. It’ll require a maximum effort to win this game and force it seven. Can they do it? Sure they can. It will take their absolute best.

Following another superb rendition of the national anthem by John Brancy, the puck was dropped for Game Five at 33rd and 7th. The fans were certainly into it. So were the Rangers who still had Reaves in street clothes screaming, “Shesty, release us!” Great team guy. I’m sure he’ll be back in for Game Six.

Gallant started the fourth line against the Cirelli line. Cooper had Hedman with Erik Cernak, who has quietly been effective by finishing checks and blocking shots. It was Miller and Jacob Trouba for the Rangers.

There weren’t many shots in the early going. The Lightning only had one shot in the first half of the period, but hit two goalposts. On a Steven Stamkos wide dump in, the puck came right to Kucherov whose slap shot rang off the far post.

Vasilevskiy made his first save on a long Braden Schneider shot off a face-off win by Zibanejad. It wasn’t a great night for Schneider, who took a penalty (hooking) even though most fans and even the bench didn’t agree. They killed it off.

On a play where Trouba pinched up, Miller raced back to break up a two-on-one. He left his feet and got his stick down to break up the play. It was a tremendous defensive read. Miller has made a lot of great plays during this postseason. He continues to excel.

With the Kid Line reunited, the cohesive trio of Lafreniere, Kakko and Chytil nearly hooked up for the game’s first goal. Lafreniere made a good pass to find Kakko in the slot area. His pass down low for Chytil, who just missed a tip-in. That close.

On a good forecheck by the second line, Panarin missed wide on a shot with traffic in front of Vasilevskiy. That line with Strome and Copp cycled the puck effectively. They just weren’t rewarded.

After a slow start, the Bolts put together consecutive strong shifts to get it going. Shesterkin made two saves including one with the pesky Perry fishing for a rebound that wasn’t there. Fox took care of him.

Nick Paul then got a counter attack off a misplay inside the Tampa zone. He was able to get off a good shot that had Shesterkin beat high glove. But it hit the post. It marked the second time in the period a Lightning shot drew iron.

Panarin nearly got one on another good shift. But his slap shot was denied by Vasilevskiy, who then stopped Chytil on a rebound chance. A bit later, Lafreniere nearly had Kakko. But the pass just missed. It typified the kind of game it was. Frustrating.

With two and a half minutes left, Pat Maroon nearly had Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, whose shot in the slot missed wide. The Rangers were fortunate. Following that close call, a strong Miller got out of trouble.

In the second period, it was the Lightning who picked up their play. After only having three shots during the first, they got six of the first seven shots to start the period.

That included Palat using his speed in transition to get a shot on Shesterkin after Trouba got caught pinching in. The speedy Palat would also draw a tacky hooking minor on Schneider, who he had a step on. By the way it’s called now, it’s a penalty. I could understand Gallant’s frustration.

However, Shesterkin wasn’t called on to make too many saves. However, he did anticipate well a Stamkos pass across for a Kucherov one-timer from his spot to make the pad save on the Lightning power play.

He also made two good stops on Maroon previously when the Bolts’ second power play unit started. For some reason, Maroon is very effective in these games. Maybe it’s because he plays a simple game and is always around the net. He has been a positive factor in all three of Tampa’s wins.

Following a successful kill, Kreider finally able to create a wide open look for Zibanejad. But he missed his one-timer high and wide. Those are the ones he must connect on. He and Kreider need to come up big on Saturday night.

Following a Shesterkin save, he alertly moved the puck up to center ice to catch the Lightning in a bad change. They were called for a bench minor. This was the only power play of the game for the Rangers.

It wasn’t good enough. A face-off loss to Cirelli allowed him to clear down the ice. He also got the best chance when he moved in and forced Shesterkin into a difficult save shorthanded. He’s a very good player. One of the best defensive forwards in the game.

The only two shots the Rangers got on the power play came from Fox and Trouba from distance. Vasilevskiy had no problem handling either. Hardly enough pressure.

After Shesterkin stopped Kucherov on one of his few good scoring chances, here came Lindgren who pinched down during a strong shift from the fourth line. With Motte battling Zach Bogosian in front, he threw a tricky high shot that snuck past Vasilevskiy short side at 10:29 to put the Rangers ahead.

It was just a smart play by Lindgren. He was able to find high blocker on Vasilevskiy, who’s had difficulty with that area during the postseason. The goal was unassisted.

But right after that goal, here came the Bolts. Shesterkin made a save on Sergachev. Then Miller was tracking back on Perry. He went for the stick lift, but got called for hooking. He wasn’t happy. I thought it was a garbage call myself.

The Rangers still kept the Lightning from tying it. Shesterkin made three saves on the power play. That included stops on Hedman and Paul. It really felt like maybe they could win if they took the one-goal lead to the locker room after two.

Instead, they never quite got there. Following Riley Nash having his backhand hit the outside of the post, the Lightning were able to get a good shift from their third line. The forecheck looked to be contained. But Rooney’s clear around the boards was intercepted by Sergachev, who then had his shot sneak past Shesterkin to tie the game with 2:26 left in the second.

It was another strange play that allowed Sergachev to score unassisted. Rooney thought he had an out by going around. But Sergachev made a good pinch and just found enough room to have his seeing eye shot go through a Perry screen into the net.

How to describe the third period? Remember seven years ago. It was that eerie uncomfortable feeling. The same exact opponent with the same coach. They still have holdovers from that team.

Playing a low-scoring one-goal game at five-on-five versus that team isn’t the best formula. There’s a reason they’ve won back-to-back Cups. They play well in tightly contested games like this.

Early in the period, the Lightning were playing a more simplified game. That led to some shots and chances.

However, Vatrano did get open on a solid shift by the Zibanejad line. But he whistled his shot wide. That’s how it’s gone for that line the last three games. They must move on. They’ll be needed to win this next game.

Shesterkin made a strong save on Palat. He would also get across the crease to turn away a Maroon backhand wrap-around.

The Lightning continued to threaten to go ahead. But Shesterkin stopped Cirelli, who’s getting closer and closer to scoring. He also just missed on a two-on-one earlier in the contest where he had the upper portion of the net.

While Panarin came back hard defensively, Strome finally got a shot on Vasilevskiy near the halfway mark. He didn’t see much rubber at that point. The Rangers picked it up afterwards.

After that, that’s where Fox had some daylight on the short side. But his shot missed wide behind the net. A pinching Lindgren recovered the puck, came out in front and was robbed by Vasilevskiy of his second goal with 9:37 remaining.

The sequence was shocking. That it was Lindgren and not a forward who had that kind of golden opportunity to put the Rangers back ahead was startling. Copp was also in the vicinity on a makeshift line witu Panarin and Zibanejad.

Rooney would get a couple of shots that Vasilevskiy handled including one from inside. But the Tampa netminder easily gloved it away. The Big Cat was not going to allow another goal unless it came off a screen or deflection. The Rangers better take notice for next game if they want this series to go the distance.

On what was another shift Chytil, Lafreniere and Kakko spent inside the Lightning zone, Kakko was grabbed by Rutta, who threw his arms up. No call. The crowd booed. It was an obvious penalty. McCauley and Hebert simply put their whistles away.

Then came the biggest scoring chance of the period. On a great pass by Panarin to Copp at the slot, it was a two-on-one down low. Instead of shooting, he realized he had Strome open for a potential put away at the side. But his backhand feed was missed by Strome, who couldn’t quite get his stick down.

If they don’t come back to win the series, they’ll be talking about that for a while. It was that close. I love Strome. I just wish he could bury those. He will get another chance with Copp and Panarin, who really deserved better than what he got last night.

With 4:45 left, Ryan McDonagh returned after missing almost 15 minutes. He got into a battle with Kreider behind his net and skated off. But of course, he returned.

Following an icing, an offensive zone draw was won by Stamkos against Chytil. Following a Miller block and Kucherov wide shot, the Rangers had two chances to get out of trouble. They failed to do so.

With the crowd nervously groaning, Hedman kept the puck in. He then found Sergachev, who had enough time to send another wrist shot towards the net. This time, Palat got a piece of it to score his eighth of the postseason with 1:50 remaining.

I knew it was over. I couldn’t contain my disgust. Why this team. Why can’t they beat them? Even after Shesterkin went off the ice for a six-on-five, Lafreniere’s centering pass from behind the net went nowhere.

Kucherov pushed the puck ahead for a Hagel empty netter at 19:01. I didn’t stay home to see Lafreniere take a beating from Stamkos at the end. I was too disgusted.

Instead, I went for a ride and wound up back at our old public schoolyard. It’s the first time I’ve been back there after a playoff defeat since 2012. Only that was series over. It isn’t over yet. But it feels like it. I hope I’m wrong.

I must’ve been in that schoolyard for almost 20 minutes just sitting and thinking. I don’t want the season to end tomorrow. It’s been too special. If this team has the true character I think they do, then they’ll do everything they can to get back home for a deciding Game Seven.

For now, we’ll have to wait and see. It could take a shutout by Shesterkin to get there. He doesn’t have one yet. They’re going to need him to be special. Think Mike Richter at The Meadowlands 28 years ago. Without him, there’s no Messier natural hat trick or Guarantee. No Cup either.

Do or Die.

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Chytil and Strome are in for Game Five

When the puck drops for Game Five tonight, both Filip Chytil and Ryan Strome are in.

That’s a relief. After leaving Game Three with a lower-body injury, Strome missed Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final. A game the Rangers lost decidedly 4-1 to the rejuvenated Lightning who evened the series.

It was also late in the second period of that loss that Chytil left with an upper-body injury after taking a good hit by Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman. After not returning the other night, he’ll be available for tonight’s pivotal game.

Certainly, the Rangers need both key centers for tonight. Having not scored an even strength goal over the two losses at Tampa, it should provide a boost for Gerard Gallant’s lineup.

It wasn’t ideal having a shortened bench in either of the previous two games. Neither did it help that once Chytil went down on Tuesday night, Gallant had to mix and match lines. Barclay Goodrow wasn’t as effective centering Artemi Panarin and Andrew Copp. Neither was Kevin Rooney, who anchored the checking line..

With things less than ideal, Turk even split up his number one line. Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider have been inseparable. But with Kreider not going, he found himself out of place with Copp and Frank Vatrano.

Let’s just say nothing went right at Amalie Arena. It’s time to flip the script when Game Five drops at MSG later. That means the more familiar lines Gallant trusts. By getting both Strome and Chytil back, he can play the lineup that has better chemistry.

Update: Scratch that. It’ll be Rooney in for Ryan Reaves centering line four. I’ll have more on why later.

Kreider-Zibanejad-Vatrano

Panarin-Strome-Copp

Lafreniere-Chytil-Kakko

Motte-RooneyReaves Goodrow

Lindgren-Fox

Miller-Trouba

Braun-Schneider

Shesterkin

That also means we should see Strome back on the top power play unit with Zibanejad, Kreider, Panarin and Adam Fox. Chytil will be back on the second unit with Copp, Vatrano, Lafreniere and Jacob Trouba.

No matter what, the Rangers must play a lot better. There can’t be any passengers. They must be the aggressor and get in on the forecheck against the Tampa D. They didn’t do enough in the last two games and were mostly reduced to the outside by the Bolts.

Use the Garden crowd early. They’ll be behind them. It’s the biggest game this team’s played in a long time. It’s a chance to go up three games to two on the defending champs. Protect home ice.

They must do a better job against Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat. They were huge in Games Three and Four. Slow them down. The best way is to win that match-up by making them defend. Similar to what Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel were able to do against the Zibanejad line.

Match-ups matter. Winning them are keys. So too is the Kid Line. They sure missed Chytil after he left. It’s that cohesive trio with Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko who provide energy by being able to cycle pucks down low and generate scoring chances.

Discipline remains a key. In Game Three, it was the Trouba penalties that really hurt the Blueshirts. The Bolts scored twice on the power play to come from behind to win Game Three with Palat getting the crusher with 41.6 seconds left in regulation.

Maintaining discipline isn’t just about avoiding the penalty box. It’s also about managing the puck. Defending well. The Rangers must get back to playing like a five-man unit to be successful. Do that and their chances increase.

Igor vs Vasy. By now, everyone knows how important the goalie match-up is. Featuring the game’s top two netminders, Igor Shesterkin and Andrei Vasilevskiy have taken care of business at home. Now, it’s a huge Game Five at The Garden. Whoever can make the key saves tonight will likely give their team an edge.

Fox and Hedman. In the first two games, it went to Fox. He controlled play and impacted both wins at home. However, he was held in check in the two losses at Tampa where it was Hedman who stepped up. They’re two of the best defensemen in the game. Fox will need to have a stronger night.

Clear the net. The past two games, the Lightning had a lot more success crashing Igor’s crease and making it tough by taking extra whacks after whistles. The Blueshirts must take care of that by pushing them out. Knock players down. But don’t take penalties.

Make life harder on Vasy. There’s no question Vasilevskiy was in a zone once his team fell behind two games. Especially when they gave up consecutive power play goals to trail by two in the all important third game. He was locked in and made the big stops. However, he hardly had to work in Game Four due to the lack of traffic. The Rangers have to make life harder on the Big Cat. Screen and get tips. Win those battles.

Undoubtedly, it’ll come down to who executes better. There will be urgency on both sides. But for the Rangers, it’s very important to win this game. They must be hungry. Win those loose pucks and board battles. They must out-work and out-grind the Lightning.

I’ll have more later.

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Eastern Conference Final: Rangers put to sleep by stifling Lightning in Game Four snooze fest, Bolts tie series, Chytil hurt, Kucherov the difference

It’s all even. The Lightning made life miserable for the Rangers. In what was a sleep inducing Game Four at Amalie Arena, they were put to sleep by a dominant Lightning who won 4-1 to send the series back to MSG tied.

It wasn’t even close. Despite having an edge in shots, the Blueshirts never were in sync. It showed. A bad start saw Pat Maroon score the game’s first goal only 2:38 in when he steered in a rebound following a strong move by Zach Bogosian that Igor Shesterkin stopped.

That scoring play was indicative of how bad the Rangers played. Bogosian went around Ryan Reaves and then toe dragged Justin Braun to force Shesterkin into a tough save. With the puck loose in the slot, an unchecked Maroon backhanded it in while the rest of the fourth line and third pair watched.

They entered the game without Ryan Strome, who tried to give it a go in warm-ups. But he was in obvious pain. Barclay Goodrow moved up to center the second line. Kevin Rooney came in to fill the fourth line center role. Both lines were weakened without Strome, who it turns out is more important than some fans think.

It got even worse. With over six minutes left in the second period, Filip Chytil took a big Victor Hedman hit along the boards. He would leave the contest with 3:03 left due to an upper-body injury. Along with the setback to Strome, the center position is now a big concern going into a pivotal Game Five.

The only positive is that they’ll have two days off to get ready for that big game back at MSG. The extra day of rest could help Strome and Chytil. It’s obvious that both are needed if they’re going to knock off the two-time defending champs. Maybe that can also aid the team because they looked lost tonight.

Five-on-five is becoming a problem in the Eastern Conference Final. In fact, if they don’t figure out a way to improve at even strength, they can’t win this series. Jon Cooper has turned it into a tight checking affair with little space. A defensive style he’s used before. See 2015. Same round.

Now, it’s up to Gerard Gallant to find a formula to beat it. He will have the benefit of the last change which can help offset the match-up of Anthony Cirelli against Mika Zibanejad. One that’s been tilted in favor of the Bolts. Since Cooper put Cirelli between Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel, they’ve blanketed Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano.

In fact, Gallant was so disturbed by what he saw that he split up Zibanejad and Kreider. Kreider had a bad night. He was unable to get much done and took two penalties in the third period. At one point, Artemi Panarin was up with Zibanejad and Alexis Lafreniere. That was the only time the Rangers showed a pulse. Lafreniere was denied by Andrei Vasilevskiy late in the second on one of the only chances.

Without Chytil, it forced Gallant to do more line tweaking. It was a mixed bag. Nothing worked. That’s how well the Lightning played. They defended and made it easy on Andrei Vasilevskiy. He finished with 33 saves on 34 shots.

Shesterkin allowed three goals on 30 shots. It wasn’t about him. It was all on how inept the Rangers were. That’s why the best-of-seven series is now all even at two apiece. They must dig deeper than they ever have to knock off the NHL version of Jason and Michael Myers.

They can’t just rely on what they’ve done at home thus far. They’ve won a franchise record eight straight games at MSG in the playoffs. Getting the ninth will come down to sheer will and determination. Heart and guts. The character this team has displayed throughout.

In regards to the lineup, you had one key change. Rooney in for Strome. That meant tweaks to the second and fourth lines. Neither of which were good. Not that the Zibanejad line was either. The only line who looked decent was the Kid Line. Eventually, Gallant was forced to break them up.

Adam Fox was again shutdown. The Lightning were very stingy and took away the stretch pass. A familiar script that Cooper was able to successfully do seven years ago. Of the six defensemen, K’Andre Miller was the best. But he did get beat on the third goal. Partner Jacob Trouba had seven shots to lead the team. But that’s not a good thing.

The Bolts stuck with their revised lineup from Game Three. It worked again. They neutralized the Rangers while executing better at five-on-five to score three times. Following a late Panarin power play goal on a six-on-four, Ondrej Palat put it away with an empty netter. He was their best player finishing with a goal and two assists.

Following another great anthem, it was third line versus third line. Once again, the Chytil line with Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko spent some time in the Tampa zone. It led to Trouba getting a long shot on Vasilevskiy. He would then have a second attempt blocked by Victor Hedman, who again was strong for the Bolts.

Immediately, the Cirelli line put pressure on the Zibanejad line. They had the puck in their end. This has become a theme the last two games. Cirelli is a very good skater and two-way pivot who does a lot well. He might not have scored, but his line impacted the game.

After some initial zone time by the checking line which led to Vasilevskiy stopping Rooney, they fell apart in their end. On a play started by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare following a face-off win over Tyler Motte, he moved the puck up for Bogosian.

It then turned into a disaster. Not known for his offense, the physical defenseman eluded the lazy check of Reaves and then slipped around Braun to force Shesterkin into a save. The puck came right to Maroon, who chipped it in while all five Rangers stood around. That goal at 2:38 set the tone.

The rough start continued. The Lightning fourth line again buzzed around Shesterkin’s net. Following a save on Bellemare, Jan Rutta just missed. But the goal horn went off causing the refs to stop play to make sure it didn’t go in.

Another bad shift by Reaves resulted in him taking a lazy tripping minor on Bogosian. The Bolts came close on the power play. After he made a tough save on a Kucherov deflection and dove to cover the puck, they blew the play dead with the annoying Corey Perry digging for a rebound.

They would go to video review. But the call on the ice was the right one. Shesterkin had the puck underneath his pads when they whistled play dead. He was close to the goal line. But by then, the play was over.

If there’s been a recurring theme in these two games, it’s been the Lightning’s willingness to attack the net. They’re constantly taking extra whacks at Shesterkin to get underneath his skin. He’s held up well. You had Palat and Perry do it early. The Rangers must respond by protecting him better. Go on the offensive against Vasilevskiy.

With the hitting and blocked shots again picking up, there wasn’t a lot of prime real estate. Despite getting more shots in the period (10-8), the Blueshirts didn’t exactly make Vasilevskiy work too hard.

On the flip side, the Lightning used their passing to stretch the ice. That included Steven Stamkos getting behind for a near breakaway. But Zibanejad hustled back to prevent a potential goal. He came back hard.

When they finally spent some time in the Lightning end, the Zibanejad line still wasn’t able to get enough done offensively. He got away with one when he took a player down in the neutral zone to groans from the Tampa crowd.

There were too many shifts where the fourth line were losing the battle to the Lightning checking line of Maroon, Bellemare and Riley Nash. They seemed to ways be caught on with Braun and Braden Schneider. That can’t happen when the series returns to NYC.

On a shift where the second line had the puck in the Lightning zone, Panarin tried one of those low percentage backhand centering passes through the middle that got intercepted. Frustrating. He would be better off hanging onto the puck and skating around the net. You can’t turnover pucks against the Bolts.

After a save from Shesterkin on Cirelli, the fourth line finally created something in the final minute. Ryan Lindgren had a shot redirected by Motte on goal that Vasilevskiy made a good stop on. Probably his best of the period.

That’s how the period ended. Although they led 10-8 in shots, anyone could see who was in control. The Lightning led by a goal, had at least five more scoring chances and were slowing down the Rangers’ speed and transition game.

The second started better. Lafreniere was able to hold a puck in and get an early tester on Vasilevskiy from the outside. With Panarin moved up with Zibanejad and Frank Vatrano, they spent some time in the Tampa end. That led to a long Miller shot on Vasilevskiy. He would also recover defensively to break up a play.

Then you had some foolhardy Tampa fans with their own, “Igor Sucks,” chant. Just as ridiculous as the “Igor’s Better” one fans at MSG had. They’re both outstanding goalies. The best two in the game. Even some cool Bolts fans I follow couldn’t understand it.

Vasilevskiy made a good save on a tricky Trouba shot with Andrew Copp standing right in front. At that point, I concluded that it was going to be tough to score. It was due to how the Lightning were defending and Vasilevskiy being locked in. Not that he had to stand on his head.

Maybe if Chytil had been able to hit the net on a backhand prior, I might’ve felt differently. I could tell that one more goal and the game was over. It was the kind of game where you could’ve dozed off and not missed anything.

With nothing happening and Gallant having changed his lines, Vatrano decided to take on Hagel. It was a spirited hockey fight. Vatrano landed some punches. Hagel went back at him. Who would’ve thought that would be the highlight of the game for the Rangers?

On a play where Copp, Lindgren and Fox were caught out for a long shift, Jan Rutta moved the puck to Palat, who led Kucherov in for a breakaway goal that made it 2-0 with 6:53 left. It was a well executed play that allowed the dangerous Kucherov to move in and shoot five-hole on Shesterkin.

On the next shift, Chytil absorbed a heavy hit from Hedman where he went hard into the boards. Once he left the game, this was clear advantage Bolts. But with Gallant throwing his lines into the blender, he nearly came up with a winning combo.

On one late shift where Lafreniere joined Zibanejad and Panarin, he got one of their best opportunities. On a good pass from Panarin, Lafreniere fired a tough shot on Vasilevskiy with one of his defensemen sliding into him. He tried to go short side top. But the Lightning ace made the big save with 3:02 left.

Shortly after, Shesterkin got across to rob Kucherov of his second on a one-timer. He made the smooth pad save. The way the game was going, if it had gone in, you could’ve turned your TV sets off. Which would’ve meant no more of listening to Sean McDonough on the call. God. How is he ESPN’s top guy for hockey?

I only had one thought after the first two periods that made any sense. Sorry if I was right.

I didn’t even bother paying close attention to the third. Without Chytil and Zibanejad blanketed by Cirelli, it was pointless. You had more different lines tried by a desperate Gallant, who was looking for anything.

As if to prove my point, Kreider took a lazy tripping minor on Stamkos only 67 seconds into the third. Although they successfully killed the penalty, it wouldn’t matter.

On a nothing play, Palat came off the wall beating two Rangers and got a good shot that Shesterkin couldn’t handle. With Miller unable to turnaround in time, Stamkos buried the rebound for his seventh at 4:56 to put it out of reach.

Even with lots of time left, this one was finished. The Lightning continued to play stifling defense and let Vasilevskiy see the shots. Unlike the first two games, he’s seeing the puck well and making the stops. We’ve seen him do this before. The Rangers are going to have to find a way to make it harder on him.

Then, after getting slashed by Mikhail Sergachev, Reaves hacked at him. Although Sergachev got an extra for interference that Perry served, Vasilevskiy twice denied Zibanejad including once from Ovi territory. The shot wasn’t where he wanted it.

Kreider took an interference minor on Erik Cernak that evened it up less than a minute later. This was an off night for him. Hopefully, he can do what good players do and put it behind him. They’re gonna need big games from Kreider and Zibanejad to win this series.

Shesterkin turned away Cirelli twice on the Tampa five-on-four. Hedman also missed twice before getting one on Shesterkin, who could’ve sued for run support. He must’ve felt like Jordan Montgomery.

Although they kept firing away on Vasilevskiy, he wasn’t allowing anything to get by him at five-on-five. An area that must improve if the Rangers have any Stanley Cup plans against what will be a well rested Avalanche following their sweep of the over-matched Oilers.

Of all the players, Trouba kept getting shots through. He had seven on goal. None beat Vasilevskiy, who seemed to be headed for his eighth postseason shutout.

But a Killorn holding minor with 3:52 left gave the Rangers one last chance. Gallant was aggressive by lifting Shesterkin for the six-on-four. On a Kreider shot that Vatrano got a piece of, the puck bounced right to Panarin, who shelved his sixth for a power play goal with 3:33 remaining.

Although Shesterkin stayed on the bench for a six-on-five, Trouba wasn’t able to beat Vasilevskiy. Ryan McDonagh blocked two shots to help protect the Bolts’ two-goal lead.

Eventually, the Rangers lost the puck at center. With time winding down, Palat scored into an open net at 19:51 to put the exclamation point on the Lightning victory.

The less said about it, the better. This was a wasted exercise. I would’ve had more fun watching something on History Channel.

Three Stars 🌟 ✨️ 🤩

3rd 🌟 Anthony Cirelli Lightning 4 SOG, 6 attempts, 2 hits, takeaway, block, 6-for-13 on draws in 20:45, shutdown Zibanejad

2nd 🌟 🤩 Nikita Kucherov Lightning breakaway goal (7), 4 SOG, 5 attempts, +3 in 19:53

1st 🌟 🤩 ⭐️ Ondrej Palat Lightning goal (7) plus 2 assists (5, 6), 2 SOG, 4 attempts, 3 hits, +3 in 16:26

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