Eastern Conference Final: Palat’s dagger with 41.6 seconds left completes comeback to take Game Three, Bad third costly, Strome leaves game, Missed opportunity for Rangers who lead Lightning in series 2-1


In the end, they burned and crashed. Unable to hold a lead in a lopsided third period, the Rangers blew it. They let the Lightning come back to win Game Three 3-2 at Amalie Arena in Tampa.

Ondrej Palat scored the dagger with 41.6 seconds left in regulation. He was able to take a slick Nikita Kucherov pass and beat Igor Shesterkin short side for the game-winner. It was the only even strength goal in the game.

A lousy third period cost them an opportunity to grab a stranglehold of the Eastern Conference Final. With their backs literally against the wall still down a goal, the Lightning rose up to the challenge by outscoring the Rangers 2-0. They outshot them 19-6.

When push came to shove, the two-time defending champs showed more urgency to grab Game Three. They are now back in it and trail the Rangers two games to one.

That makes Game Four on Tuesday pretty significant. It’s simple. Either play better and win on the road to pull within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals or lose and the series goes back to MSG tied with a pivotal Game Five on Thursday.

The way they played the third period, they got what they deserved. No excuses. When you have a wounded champion down, you have to finish them off. Instead, the Bolts delivered in crunch time and should be feeling much better about themselves.

Adam Fox, who didn’t distinguish himself in this one, summarized it up well. They didn’t play good enough in the third. Instead, the second of three mindless Jacob Trouba minor penalties led directly to Steven Stamkos tying the game from Corey Perry and Kucherov at only 1:22 into the period.

Trouba had a miserable day. He took undisciplined penalties. Twice, the Lightning took full advantage. It was foolish for Trouba to take an interference minor on Palat right after Chris Kreider had converted their second power play goal that put them up 2-0.

That penalty swung the momentum. Kucherov scored on the man-advantage from Victor Hedman and Stamkos to immediately cut the lead in half. From that point on, the game changed. It went the Lightning’s way.

After getting 32 shots on Shesterkin over the first two periods, the Lightning were all over his crease in the deciding third. One where a lack of killer instinct doomed the Blueshirts.

Even after they killed off a questionable goaltender interference penalty on Frank Vatrano, who was shoved into Andrei Vasilevskiy by Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers blew a chance to go back ahead.

They failed to capitalize on an errant high-stick by Kucherov that cut Mika Zibanejad. Instead of cashing in on the power play for the third time, they couldn’t get much done before another Trouba penalty killed whatever chance they had of regaining the lead.

From there, the more desperate Lightning played to win the game. Exactly what they did by concluding a dominant game at five-on-five by getting Palat’s stunner at 19:18 to make it a series.

Before I dissect the particulars on this one, I want to make a point about how ridiculous these reporters are who cover the games. At one point during his postgame press conference, Gerard Gallant was asked about the Lightning’ goalie tactics. This was absurd. I roasted it and got a lot of attention for being honest.

It’s the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. By now, you should know what to expect. I hinted at what the Lightning would do in a post prior to the game. If you’re not getting traffic on a great goalie, you probably won’t have much success. I don’t see the big deal.

Shesterkin felt the pressure and took a dive to draw one on Perry. I don’t care for embellishment. If you’re not a blogger who is objective, then take the rose-colored blue shades off. I call it like I see it. In the end, it balanced out. I didn’t like the call on Trouba that led to Stamkos tying it.

It’s time to break down where it went wrong. Why it’s now two games to one instead of three-zip.

Prior to the game start, everyone knew Jon Cooper would alter his lineup. He’d been going with the unorthodox seven defensemen, 11 forwards since Brayden Point went down in the seventh game of the first round. However, it was obvious he had to change it up for this game.

Cooper decided to dress Riley Nash and scratch Cal Foote. That way he had a regular 12 forward, six defensemen alignment. He also went with better lines by moving Stamkos back to center between Palat and Kucherov. Anthony Cirelli centered a second line that had Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel on it. They blanketed the Rangers’ top line of Zibanejad, Kreider and Vatrano at even strength.

While Cooper made adjustments to get his team going, Gallant stuck with the lineup that’s been rolling since the end of the second round. Here’s how they looked.

Kreider-Zibanejad-Vatrano

Panarin-Strome-Copp

Lafreniere-Chytil-Kakko

Motte-Goodrow-Reaves

Lindgren-Fox

Miller-Trouba

Braun-Schneider

Shesterkin

Following a nice tribute to a veteran which is something I’ve noticed the Lightning do better than any other team, you had a wonderful anthem sung by the woman who does it. She’s really good.

Then came the drop of the puck. At the beginning, the match-up was established with the Cirelli line against the Zibanejad line. Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak were lined up against that line.

Being on the road allows the opponent to dictate what happens. Gallant never worries about that. If they don’t improve at even strength halfway through next game, it’s something to think about.

I’m terms of the start, the Lightning revealed part of their strategy on the game’s opening shift. Killorn finished an early check on K’Andre Miller. It was a physical game. Hitting was fierce throughout.

Another thing that was noticeable was they put pucks on Shesterkin from everywhere. McDonagh was more visible. When he wasn’t checking, he was firing shots on net. Shesterkin stopped him three minutes in.

On an active shift where he hit Ryan Lindgren and Hagel got Zibanejad, Cirelli got a long shot on Shesterkin that he froze. He was okay with stopping play to get face-offs. That’s due to his team having more success in the dots this round.

Following a good offensive shift for the second line where both Andrew Copp and Ryan Strome forced Vasilevskiy into saves, Shesterkin made one on Kucherov from the outside. Both goalies were on this game.

The Kid Line came out of their end and were able to generate something against the new Tampa third line of Nick Paul, Ross Colton and Nash. After Alexis Lafreniere tool a Mikhail Sergachev hit, Filip Chytil was able to get a good shot on Vasilevskiy that he turned away. On that same shift, Lafreniere had a tip-in blocked by Sergachev, who had a solid game.

It would be some pressure from the checking line of Barclay Goodrow, Tyler Motte and Ryan Reaves that helped set up two more point shots. After Miller went wide on one, Trouba had his denied by Vasilevskiy.

The action continued to pick up. Shesterkin made a strong denial on Kucherov to keep it scoreless. But at the end of his shift, he high-sticked Artemi Panarin.

Unfortunately, the Rangers couldn’t take advantage. Their first power play was abysmal. Paul dominated his shorthanded shifts by being aggressive along with Cirelli, who remains one of the most unheralded players. He got plenty of Selke votes. That went to Patrice Bergeron. A player I love.

Following a Copp shot that Vasilevskiy repelled, Trouba had his attempt blocked by McDonagh. He then sent a good outlet to lead Kucherov out of the box for a breakaway. But Shesterkin kicked it out with the right pad to keep the game scoreless. He looked so confident too.

The checking line then all were able to get looks on a strong shift. After absorbing a Sergachev hit, Goodrow stayed with it to force Vasilevskiy into one save. He then denied both Motte and Reaves. He was sharp. This was the world’s best goalie.

The teams continued to find open ice and test each netminder. On one side, Kucherov passed across for a Bogosian shot that Shesterkin handled. He also stopped Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and would later deny a rebound.

Following a few more Shesterkin saves, Trouba and Copp would have a two-on-one. But rather than take the open shot, Trouba telegraphed a pass across that a hustling Hedman made a great play on to break it up.

After a block from Trouba, Miller made a great rush into the Lightning zone and took a good shot on Vasilevskiy that he handled. Of all our defensemen, he was by far the best in this game. He made good reads, played physical defense and was very active. He continues to grow as a player.

You had your usual feisty play from pest Pat Maroon. The gritty veteran forward who’s won three straight Cups was a nuisance throughout. He finished checks including one on Trouba, who returned the favor.

If there was a turning point that would later impact the game, it had to be when during a late shift from the Panarin line, Strome got knocked down by Rutta after searching for a rebound of a Trouba shot. In the second period, he only took one shift before exiting the game for good.

Despite a high octane period where the teams combined for 27 shots in favor of the Bolts (15-12), there was no score. But it has plenty of action. The Bolts also were up 21-14 in hits. The Rangers led in face-offs 13-7 with Zibanejad going six-for-nine against Cirelli. Here was my input.

Maybe I noticed it early on. There was a different level of intensity from the Lightning. It wasn’t surprising. In essence, this was their season hanging in the balance.

It didn’t take long for an injury to effect the game. Strome was on for the second shift of period two. Then, he left the ice for the locker room hobbled. After returning to the bench once, he exited for good. It really threw the lines out of wack.

Gallant had Goodrow move up to take some shifts with Panarin and Copp. After a Shesterkin save on Hagel, that new line had some opportunities. Panarin was denied twice by Vasilevskiy. Then Goodrow once.

With Chytil struggling to win draws, Lafreniere took one instead. He didn’t win it against Paul, who’s a good overall player. But during that shift, Colton swatted at Shesterkin even though he stopped Perry. Lindgren responded. Both earned minors to cause four-on-four.

Not long into it, a turnover in the neutral zone led to Zibanejad interfering with Killorn. That gave the Lightning a four-on-three.

Despite some good movement, the Rangers penalty killers were superb. In particular, Miller who after a takeaway led a two-on-one with Goodrow, whose shorthanded bid hit the far goalpost.

With time winding down, Perry took a little hack at Shesterkin, who was out on the edge of his crease. He made light contact with Shesterkin, who went down as if he’d been shot. It was a penalty on Perry. But the embellishment from Igor was absurd. They easily could’ve given him one for the acting.

Following a pair of saves on Paul, out came the Rangers’ top unit. Only this time, it had Chytil on in place of Strome. The result was the same. On another great passing play between Panarin and Fox, they set up an open Zibanejad for a rocket blaster past Vasilevskiy at 7:37.

That gave them a 1-0 lead. It was the 10th of the postseason for Zibanejad on the power play from Fox and Panarin. Zibanejad has been on a roll. He would later add an assist to tack on two more points. His 24 (10-14-24) rank third in the playoffs trailing only Leon Draisaitl and leader Connor McDavid. Both are about to go bye-bye due to how bad Edmonton is. Colorado can sweep them tomorrow night.

After Nash bumped into Shesterkin for a legit goaltender interference call that some Tampa fans booed, things were looking up for the Rangers. After three saves from Vasilevskiy, this time a Zibanejad one-timer rebounded right for Kreider to bang home for his 10th at 9:44 for a two-goal lead.

The goal was the 34th of Kreider’s postseason career. In scoring it, he tied all-time great Rod Gilbert for first on the Rangers scoring list in the playoffs. Fittingly, it also gives him 62 combined between the regular season and postseason. That matches Adam Graves, who also went for 52 plus 10 in 1994. One more goal and Kreider will be all alone.

But when it felt like they had all the momentum, Trouba took an unnecessary minor for interference on Palat 25 seconds later to put Tampa on the power play. This was the turning point. There are moments where you can’t take penalties. I talked about Trouba needing to avoid the bad ones to win this series.

Right on cue, the Lightning perfectly executed their first power play goal on Sunday. After receiving a pass from Stamkos, Hedman made a good diagonal feed for a Kucherov one-timer past Shesterkin at 10:50. That quickly, they pulled within one with 9:10 left in the period.

Able to gain momentum from the Kucherov goal, the Lightning started to come. They had more possession time in the Rangers’ end. Shesterkin would stop a Sergachev shot with 6:04 left.

As they got into the final five minutes, it was back and forth similar to Game One. Vasilevskiy made a good save on Trouba. Chytil would then have his deflection go wide. After Shesterkin stopped McDonagh on one end, Chytil was denied by Vasilevskiy. Then, Shesterkin made a save on Bogosian.

On another effective shift from the Kid Line, Lafreniere was denied by Vasilevskiy, who wouldn’t give in. It was a passing play where Chytil and Kakko combined to get the puck over for Lafreniere, whose low shot was taken care of. That was a big opportunity.

Paul, whose been one of the Bolts’ most consistent players, then just missed tying it with over a minute left. With the seconds winding down, Maroon got one last hit on Zibanejad along the boards as the buzzer sounded. You didn’t have to like it. But he sure was a lot more noticeable than Reaves (1 hit). Maroon had six for the game.

Maybe I should’ve known right there what was in store for the third. If you don’t think those hits matter, you’re not paying attention. It set the tone before the Lightning even went to the locker room.

Sure enough, the Cirelli line buzzed on the first shift of the third period. They got three shots on Shesterkin with the last one from Hagel leading to another bad Trouba moment. He was called for holding Cirelli. It wasn’t much.

After one save by Shesterkin on Hedman, Copp came the opposite way and got a shorthanded chance that Vasilevskiy had. No problem. Right? Wrong. Led by Kucherov up ice, he handed for Perry, who then was allowed too much time to find a wide open Stamkos for his hammer past Shesterkin at 1:22.

Stamkos’ sixth was the Bolts’ second power play goal. Suddenly, it was all even at two with 19:38 left. At that point, every goal came on the man-advantage. Both teams were getting it done on the power play.

The problem was the poor start really came back to hurt. The Rangers never recovered. It was all Lightning. They got nine of the first 11 shots.

Every once in a while, the Rangers would get a look. It was one and done. While their offense fizzled, the Lightning sizzled. Everyone was shooting pucks on their side. They didn’t have to be told by Cooper. They also kept attacking Shesterkin’s crease. There wasn’t enough push back from the guys in the white jerseys.

Vatrano probably had their best scoring chance. After taking a feed, he cut in on Vasilevskiy and got off a tough backhand that he stopped. But he came together with McDonagh and bumped into the Lightning goalie. They called him for interference. It’s a 50/50 play. I hate that call.

On the kill again, this time an inspired defensive effort from Goodrow wouldn’t allow the Bolts to get shots through. Initially, Perry had two that were saved by Shesterkin.

Then, it turned into a block party highlighted by a diving Goodrow leaving his feet to reject Hedman. He could barely stand. Eventually, he got to the bench and limped off for repairs. Then returned. I love Goody. He’s all heart. Tampa fans still appreciate him.

By then, the shots were 44-26. Shesterkin was making the saves to give his team a chance to steal it. After a Cernak miss wide on sustained pressure by the Lightning, Kucherov lost his discipline by high-sticking Zibanejad for a double minor with 9:06 left.

Instead of making him pay, they didn’t. It was the Lightning’s turn to play strong on the kill. That included Fox absorbing an iffy hit from Cernak on the boards. It sure looked like his elbow came up.

They still had an extended five-on-four. But only Zibanejad got a shot on that Vasilevskiy saved. Kakko then missed on a tip-in. Not long after came the Bolts shorthanded led by who else but Paul. Chytil denied him. Trouba then had to take a penalty on Killorn. That was the moment I kind of felt the game was lost. It was only a matter of time.

As Tampa began to press the action at five-on-five, Gallant shortened his bench in a tie game. I could understand sitting Reaves. But why didn’t Braden Schneider get a shift? He doesn’t trust him now? I really disagree with what Turk did. He shortchanged himself and overworked the top guys.

Remember. He didn’t have Strome either. This was a bad job by a coach who’s done so much right. Your team was up two games. Not the other way around. He can’t be so conservative. Let’s hope it won’t bite him in the ass. They can win next game.

Aside from offering little in Vasilevskiy’s path, the Rangers iced the puck. They were exhausted. Not the other way around as some misguided foolish banter had claimed after the first two games. It felt like they were hanging on. As if they could rely on overtime. They never made it.

Instead, on just a superb play started by Cernak, he got the puck across to Hedman. He then passed to a tightly guarded Kucherov, who fooled everyone by one touching the puck over for a Palat one-timer short side on Shesterkin with 41.6 seconds remaining.

Game over. By the time they got Shesterkin off, all that was left was the Rangers scrambling around following a Tampa clear.

It was a bitter defeat. But they earned it. Outshot 19-6. 52-30 for the game. So add a save to Shesterkin’s line. He made 49 saves on 52 shots. Vasilevskiy stopped 28.

A noticeable difference was the Lightning’s edge at even strength. They held a 40-21 edge in shots with Palat getting his 10th career game-winner in the postseason.

As hard a loss as this was, it isn’t the end of the world. Zibanejad took the blame for puck watching on the play that led to Palat scoring. But he has been brilliant. It was simply a fantastic play by a clutch player. Kucherov made a great pass. Shesterkin was surprised by it too.

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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