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

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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