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.

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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