Eastern Conference Final: Rangers go two up on Lightning by holding on for a 3-2 win to take Game Two, Fox and Miller lead the way

That’s two. The Rangers are two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. They followed up a 6-2 win by holding on for a 3-2 victory over the Lightning to take Game Two at MSG.

Leading by two thanks to a big goal from Mika Zibanejad in the third period, they held on at the end to earn a hard fought one-goal win. With Jon Cooper lifting Andrei Vasilevskiy with 3:49 left, the move worked when Nick Paul was able to get behind and beat Igor Shesterkin to cut it to 3-2 with 2:02 left.

One thing about the Rangers. It’s never easy. You’d think some of the fans who continued the misguided “Igor’s Better,” chant would know that. A different crowd that doesn’t appreciate the franchise history.

So, when Paul did score at 17:58 to make it a one-goal game, it got tense. Having been under the weather, I opted to listen to Sam Rosen call the final 2:02 on ESPN Radio. I had the broadcast on for the whole game with the radio. But after seeing Paul’s goal on the delay, I decided to shut the ESPN television feed off.

Call it superstition. Call it whatever you will. It worked. Listening to Rosen call that final frantic 122 seconds with Dave Maloney was nerve racking. Exactly how it’s supposed to be.

After a couple of close calls with the Lightning centering a puck through the crease, they went offside with less than six seconds remaining. You could hear a sigh of relief on both Rosen and Maloney when one more clear sealed the victory on home ice.

Phew. That’s how it felt following key saves from Shesterkin on Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos with under a minute left. The Lightning pressed for the equalizer. But it never came.

Now, the Rangers lead the Eastern Conference Final two games to none with the series shifting to Tampa Bay for the next two. Game Three is Sunday at 3 PM. A rare afternoon game. That will probably determine what happens.

One thing is history. The Lightning’s win streak following losses in the postseason, which dates back to 2020. They were 18-0 after losing a playoff game. It had to end sometime. Credit the Rangers for doing so.

By winning Games One and Two, all they have done is hold serve by protecting home ice. We’ve been through this already last round against the Hurricanes. They should know full well that this series is far from over. Look what they did to Carolina after falling behind 2-0 and 3-2.

Now, the pressure is squarely on the Lightning. The two-time defending champs have not been in this situation the past two years. However, there’ll be plenty of urgency when the puck drops for Game Three. Something Cooper emphasized in a revealing postgame where he indicated that he felt his team didn’t manage the puck well enough.

The Tampa coach was dissatisfied with how the Bolts played during the first half of last night’s game. He thought the Rangers were better at managing pucks and limiting turnovers. Although Tampa picked it up in the second half including following the key Zibanejad goal 1:21 into the third, it wasn’t enough to come back.

For a second consecutive game, Shesterkin was better than Vasilevskiy. He made 29 saves on 31 shots including stopping 13 of 14 in the third period to win for the 10th time this postseason.

Vasilevskiy finished with 25 saves on 28 shots. Although he kept his team in it during a lopsided stretch in the second period, he’d probably want the Zibanejad goal back. It beat him high, stick side. An area that the Rangers have hit a few times already in the first two games.

The interesting aspect of Friday’s win was that it was their five-on-five play that made the difference. Indeed, all three of the Rangers’ goals were at even strength. They were opportunistic scoring three on 19 shots.

Vasilevskiy was superb on the penalty kill. He made nine saves on all four power plays. That allowed the Lightning to hang around. Even on a night he fought the puck on a few stops, the former Vezina and Conn Smythe winner gave his team a chance at the comeback.

For once, special teams wasn’t a strength. The Rangers went 0-for-4 on the power play and allowed a power play goal on the Lightning’s only man-advantage. Good thing they didn’t take anymore penalties.

Following another wonderful national anthem by John Brancy, who really should replace the now gone legend John Amirante (always forever in our hearts), the Rangers started their top line with K’Andre Miller and Trouba.

While the Gerard Gallant stuck with the same lineup, Cooper didn’t. He changed things up by having Anthony Cirelli between Ondrej Palat and Kucherov. I was surprised. That top line started the game with Victor Hedman paired up with Jan Rutta in another shakeup.

Maybe it’s just me. I thought Cooper panicked a little by splitting up Kucherov and Stamkos. My guess is they’ll be back together with Cirelli for Game Three.

Unlike the first game, Game Two had a different feel to it. It was more quiet. However, once the fourth lines were sent out, it didn’t take long for Ryan Reaves and Pat Maroon to start jostling. Before the face-off, it continued. For some reason, Reaves got the only penalty for slashing. Ticky tac.

On an early power play, it only took the Lightning 16 seconds to get the first goal. After Cirelli moved the puck up top for Hedman, he passed for a Kucherov shot that beat Shesterkin with Corey Perry in front at 2:41.

The first replay seemed to indicate that perhaps Perry tipped it. But after he was given credit, they changed it back to Kucherov.

After the goal, the Bolts picked it up after with more aggressive play. That included two misses from Alex Killorn and Stamkos. Following an icing, Cirelli went at Ryan Lindgren. Your usual playoff battles at this crucial time of year.

The Rangers would get a scoring chance on an Artemi Panarin steal that led to a good shot on Vasilevskiy. A couple of shifts later, the Kid Line buzzed in the Tampa zone. Kaapo Kakko missed a shot high and Filip Chytil had one right on Vasilevskiy, who shut it down.

Following a face-off, the Mika Zibanejad line got it going. Off a Killorn turnover, Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano were able to lead Miller into the Lightning zone. After Brandon Hagel made a diving block, the puck came right back to Miller who beat Vasilevskiy by the glove with two players in front at 5:59.

That tied the game. It was a good response. Miller got his second of the postseason from Vatrano and Kreider. Good work by all three. Miller got a nice bounce to score on Vasilevskiy to tie it up.

A strong shift by fourth line led to Tyler Motte missing wide. It was a good forecheck from Motte, Barclay Goodrow and Reaves.

On a play that started inside his own zone, Stamkos had a good rush up ice that forced Shesterkin to make a tough save. On what was a two-on-two, the Lightning captain got behind Lindgren and Fox. He took a pass and was one-on-one with Shesterkin. But Stamkos was robbed by a great toe save by Igor to keep the game tied.

Following that key stop, Erik Cernak was called for roughing Zibanejad. This was another penalty that they didn’t call in Game One. Something Maloney alluded to on the radio.

The Rangers’ power play got some looks. After Vasilevskiy stifled a long Panarin try from the point, the top unit had some good movement. Following a wide Zibanejad try they retrieved, his shot pass for a Kreider tip-in was denied by Vasilevskiy.

After a Cirelli miss at one end, Motte countered the other way. With Hedman breathing down his neck, he still managed to get a backhand off that hit the goalpost. Braden Schneider then stepped up and missed wide. He would draw a slashing minor on Stamkos.

The second power play was more about the Lightning penalty kill. Paul, who earlier had a shorthanded attempt blocked, broke up a Ryan Strome shot. After a Vasilevskiy save on Zibanejad, Alexis Lafreniere had his tip try miss. The second unit actually had better pressure despite no shots.

When he returned, Stamkos got a nice hit on Andrew Copp. Old fashioned hockey. While the hitting picked up, there weren’t many shots. It was a defensive struggle. My main takeaway was that the game would be decided by the forecheck. How prophetic that was.

On a shift where he just passed the puck, Kucherov got knocked down by Miller. While Kucherov looked at the refs, they weren’t buying it. It was a clean hit. Miller really asserted himself throughout. It was one of his best games.

Out came the Kid Line. After Lafreniere hit the post on one chance, Kaapo Kakko tipped in an Adam Fox pass to put the Blueshirts up 2-1 with 2:28 left. The play was all about the brilliance of Fox. He got the puck from Chytil, faked and then moved it across for an easy Kakko finish. What a play.

Kakko now has points in three straight games. It was his second postseason goal. It’s nice to see him gaining confidence. He’s catching up to Chytil and Lafreniere.

With the period almost over, Trouba made a good recovery after Cirelli beat Miller. He blocked his shot. A superb read. Following a light turnaround shot from Palat that Shesterkin easily handled, the first came to a close.

Cal Foote got together with Miller and Trouba. Frustration. You could tell the Bolts were in this game.

In the second period, it was mostly Rangers early. Following some sustained pressure from the Lightning, Lafreniere was stopped by Vasilevskiy on a good opportunity. He then had an issue with a Motte backhand. But Perry helped freeze the puck.

Vasilevskiy continued to make saves. On a strong shift from the Zibanejad line, he stopped Fox on a backhand. One thing that’s noticeable so far is the Rangers’ speed. It’s causing problems for the Lightning, who aren’t as fast as the Hurricanes.

During another scrum, Foote was nabbed for roughing Copp. Pretty iffy. Very similar to the call on Reaves. Soft.

On their third power play, Panarin had a good rush up ice. After receiving an outlet from Shesterkin, he got a good shot on Vasilevskiy, who would also deny Chytil before it expired. At one point, the shots were 9-1 Rangers.

Shesterkin finally made a save on Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. He would also stop Rutta later. The Lightning started to pick it up in the second half of the period. But they weren’t exactly getting the kind of scoring chances they did last game.

On a good defensive play by Panarin, he started a three-on-one. But a great play by Ryan McDonagh broke up a Copp pass.

The Kid Line continued to generate chances. Chytil was stopped by Vasilevskiy, who then made a save on Kakko. Right now, the Lightning have no answer for that line. Their confidence is high.

With over five minutes left, both Paul and Ross Colton were denied by a sharp Shesterkin. He would then make a tough save on a Cirelli deflection.

Shesterkin made a pair of good saves on Mikhail Sergachev. As the second period concluded, the fans were on their feet at The Garden.

Although the Lightning got nine of the last fourteen shots to close to within 22-19 overall, you never felt any pressure. At least, I didn’t. It didn’t sound like they played well. It’s a little different listening to the call with the ESPN feed delayed on Wi-Fi.

In the third, after an initial push by the Bolts, Zibanejad came back with a goal following a missed two-on-one by Vatrano. Kreider got the puck to Fox, who quickly gained the Lightning zone. In transition, his pass to Zibanejad allowed him to go high blocker on Vasilevskiy at 1:21. Not a goal you expect him to give up.

Zibanejad’s ninth of the playoffs gave the Rangers a much needed two-goal lead with 18:39 remaining. It was another example of Fox making the difference with a great read that led to the critical game-winner.

The Lightning would respond with more urgency. They had some pressure. But it was the secondary players who had the best chances. Hagel was stopped by Shesterkin. Colton missed on a couple. He’s a key scorer for the Bolts.

Following a bad Goodrow turnover, Maroon had a point blank chance. But he barely did anything with it. Shesterkin did get credit for the save. Motte then cleared the zone.

A Hedman turnover resulted in Lafreniere getting a chance. But Vasilevskiy made the save. It’s been that kind of series so far for the Lightning. They’ve turned pucks over. Part of it is the Rangers. Their ability to get in on the forecheck has been prevalent.

In what was one of the best plays of the game, Miller forced Stamkos wide. Stamkos came in with speed and tried to get around, but Miller was in good position to force him behind the net. That defensive play really shows how far he’s come. Miller is only 22.

As things escalated, Trouba leveled Cirelli at the Rangers’ blue line. He caught him with a clean shoulder to send the gritty Bolts’ center to the ice. Some Lightning fans didn’t like it. But there was nothing wrong with the hit. Leave it to bitter Pens fans who are still upset over Trouba’s hit on Sidney Crosby. Also clean.

Some more good work from Lafreniere in the neutral zone led to a bogus tripping minor on Hedman. This was a total fake out. Maloney even said it on the radio. Lafreniere was going down and then got back up. What a soft call.

With a chance to put it away, they couldn’t. The power play didn’t do much. Panarin had the only good shot that Vasilevskiy handled. Trouba would get a long try near the end.

As time began running out, Cooper knew he had to be aggressive pulling his goalie. That was due to how the Rangers defended the net front. They took care of the slot area. With 3:49 remaining, Vasilevskiy went to the bench for a six-on-five.

It looked like the Rangers would not give up much. They defended well only allowing a Stamkos shot in 90 seconds. But a quick up from Kucherov to Perry allowed him to find an open Paul in front. He was able to deke Shesterkin and tuck it into the net on the forehand at 17:58 to make things interesting.

Before he lifted his goalie again, Cooper had to wait until his team got possession. Once they did, off Vasilevskiy went for the extra attacker. It really got hectic in the final countdown.

With the desperate Lightning searching for the equalizer, Shesterkin stopped both Kucherov and Stamkos in the final minute. After an icing, Cooper took his timeout with 37 seconds to go.

Following another icing, Stamkos won an offensive draw from Goodrow. Hedman was able to get a shot on from the outside that Shesterkin stopped. Then came a hairy sequence where the Bolts came close. You could tell by Rosen’s call.

But they went offside with only six seconds to spare. After one more draw between Goodrow and Stamkos, another clear killed the remaining seconds to clinch a Rangers win.

It’s crazy how close the Lightning came to forcing overtime. Can you even imagine what that building would’ve been like? I think JD said it best in our group chat.

The bottom line is they got it done. Even if the Bolts made it stressful, that’s how it’s supposed to be. These games should have drama. The Rangers were victorious because they were better overall.

Now, we find out what happens when the series moves to Tampa. Don’t count the Lightning out. There’s a narrative out there about them looking tired. I doubt they’ll be tomorrow afternoon in a must win situation. It’ll take a great effort for the Rangers to get Game Three.

It sure is nice to be leading a series two games to none. Now, we find out about this team’s killer instinct. As Mark Messier once said, “Go for the throat.” Don’t let the two-time defending champs off the hook. It sure sets up a pivotal Game Three.

Three Stars 🌟 🤩 ✨️

3rd 🌟 Mika Zibanejad game-winner (9th of postseason), 4 attempts, 9-for-19 on face-offs, +2 in 24 shifts (20:29)

2nd 🌟 🤩 K’Andre Miller NYR goal (2nd of postseason), 3 takeaways, 2 blocks in 29 shifts (23:15)

1st 🌟 🤩 ⭐️ Adam Fox NYR 2 primary assists, 4 attempts, 4 takeaways, +2 in 27 shifts (25:12)

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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