In a few hours, the Rangers and Lightning will drop the puck on Game Three of the Eastern Conference Final in Tampa.
It’ll be an opportunity for the Rangers to grab a stranglehold of the series. If they can win for the third straight time against the two-time defending champs, they’ll be one game away from reaching the Stanley Cup Finals.
In order for that to happen, they’ll have to be at their absolute best this afternoon. The Lightning are back home where they’ll have strong support from their fans, who have come to appreciate what they’ve accomplished. Expect them to lift the Lightning up.
There’s been a lot of talk since the Rangers held off a late Lightning surge for a 3-2 win in Game Two. Whether it’s about the Bolts looking tired, or missing key center Brayden Point (of course he’s missed), that doesn’t matter.
What does is that there’s still work to be done. A series doesn’t end after two games. All the Blueshirts did was take care of home ice. The Lightning get the same opportunity starting after 3 PM today on ESPN. A win and they’re right back in it.
Before asking Igor Shesterkin if he feels any differently because he beat fellow Russian Andrei Vasilevskiy twice, how about using some common sense. That doesn’t apply to most New York media who cover the team.
Thankfully, Shesterkin handled it well. He respects Vasilevskiy and understands that it takes four wins in a seven-game series to advance. He’s still chasing a guy he looks up to. They’re rivals on the ice. But once it ends, it’s different. There’s a respect factor.
All of this leads up to the main storyline for this afternoon. Do the Rangers have the killer instinct to nail down a must win situation for the Lightning in enemy territory? Even if they’ll have some support from our fans who live in the area, we have to wait and see what happens.
For all the discussion from both sides yesterday, Ryan Reaves made the most sense. Regarding the significance of Game Three, the gritty fourth line energizer nailed it when he spoke to Mollie Walker of the New York Post earlier.
Considering his experience with Vegas, Reaves knows full well how important today’s game is. Things can turn quickly. The Rangers are living proof of that. They pulled it off last round. It didn’t come easy. They had to go into Carolina and win a Game Seven.
That win gave them more confidence entering this big match-up. It proved that they can come out with the victory on the road. But remember something else. In each of the first two rounds, it took them until their last try to get the wins needed to get here.
This is a different scenario. They’re leading the series two games to none. It’s the Lightning with their backs to the wall. They will have plenty of urgency. Make no mistake about it. The team we saw on Friday won’t exist today.
That’s why it’s a requirement for the Blueshirts to heed Reaves’ message. That’s a battle call. Expect there to be plenty of battles in the trenches. A lot more edge. Maybe a slower pace since the Rangers’ speed has given the Lightning problems.
They’ll look to dictate the pace. That probably means establishing more of a forecheck and getting traffic on Shesterkin. It likely signals a more structured defensive game. Something the Bolts can do. They executed it to perfection to frustrate the Maple Leafs.
Figure them to target Adam Fox. He’s been the most dynamic player in the first two games. He’s been given a lot of time and space, making the most of it. I would expect them to finish checks on Fox on soft dumps in the corner.
The Lightning will probably look to pinch their D more to keep pucks in the Rangers’ end. They’ll have to maintain their focus. That requires strong puck management and discipline. They had four power plays to the Bolts’ one last game. That could change.
It really comes down to competing for every loose puck and ounce of space. Chipping pucks out. Avoiding bad penalties. Withstanding the early push. It’s now or never for the Lightning. They know what today’s game means.
In terms of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, the Rangers must know where they are at all times. There can’t be any wide open looks. Ditto Victor Hedman, who was heavily criticized for a bad Game Two. He’s a great player. There should be a strong response.
I would expect the gritty Lightning forwards like Anthony Cirelli, Ondrej Palat, Nick Paul, Corey Perry and Pat Maroon to be parked in front of Shesterkin. Those are tough players. It’ll be up to the Rangers to check well and continue a trend of clearing the slot area.
This is uncharted territory for most of the Blueshirts. Using the big game experience of Chris Kreider can help. Ditto for Reaves, Barclay Goodrow, Justin Braun and coach Gerard Gallant. They know about these kind of games.
It should be interesting. We’ll see if they have what it takes to end any suspense.