Losing sucks. It’s tough when your team comes so close. Sometimes, you have to lose in heartbreaking fashion to finally win.
Unfortunately, that’s what happened to the Rangers tonight in Tampa. Playing their sixth elimination game after losing Game Five in gut wrenching fashion, they were thoroughly dominated by the two-time defending champion Lightning, who won 2-1 in Game Six to advance to their third consecutive Stanley Cup Finals.
Even though they lost by a single goal to drop the Eastern Conference Final in six games, it wasn’t even that close. They were never in control. The Lightning played a great game to defeat a lethargic looking Rangers, who didn’t have a lot left in the tank.
The absurd aspect is they only trailed 1-0 when Alexis Lafreniere drew a holding minor on Steven Stamkos with 8:15 left. Given a second chance on the five-on-four, they found a way to tie the game. Off a clean face-off win by Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano beat Andrei Vasilevskiy with a one-timer for a power play goal to tie the score with 6:53 remaining in the third period.
But just as quickly as his shot beat Vasilevskiy, the Rangers’ comeback chances were gone. It took the Lightning only 21 seconds to surge back ahead. Stamkos took a feed from Ondrej Palat and had his shot go off Igor Shesterkin and bounce over and in for the crushing series clincher with 6:32 left in regulation.
On a night Shesterkin was truly special by making several ridiculous saves on his way to 29 in a lopsided game, Stamkos made the difference by beating him twice. The sad part is both goals were of the fluky variety. It speaks to how utterly brilliant Igor was. He turned away Anthony Cirelli and other Bolts on breakaways with ease.
To be blunt, it should’ve been a blowout. That’s how well the Lightning played. They were much faster, stronger and grittier than the Rangers, who looked like a punch drunk boxer out on their feet. They played for the 20th time over 40 days. If fatigue was a factor in losing the last four games of the series, not everyone admitted it.
Gerard Gallant acknowledged that it could’ve been a factor in his team only scoring one five-on-five goal the final four games. That’s 240 minutes. However, leading scorer Mika Zibanejad, who was held off the score sheet the last three games with Chris Kreider, wouldn’t take the bait. Close to tears, he said it had nothing to do with fatigue.
We know several key players played through injuries. None more so than Ryan Lindgren, who overcame what was ailing him to will himself through after missing time in the first round. Without the ultimate warrior, the Rangers don’t get this far. He was an inspiration.
One question Gallant will have to answer is why he played a clearly hurt Ryan Strome on Saturday night. He could barely skate. Eventually, the soon to be unrestricted free agent center tapped out. He couldn’t go anymore in the third after leaving the bench during the second.
While Turk was justified in not answering that question following such a tough series defeat, he does need to further explain himself. Some of his lineup decisions were puzzling. In fact, even the Rangers beat writers were confused as to whether Strome was in or out. He tried to gut it out.
That meant Kaapo Kakko was a healthy scratch. A decision that didn’t make sense. He had good chemistry with Lafreniere and Filip Chytil, who were key contributors during this run. Was it worth sitting Kakko out to break up the Kid Line? A line that was effective at even strength.
Also dressing after sitting out the last 16 games was Dryden Hunt. I don’t get the fascination with him. He’s an honest player. But hardly played during the postseason. Why insert him over Ryan Reaves, who up until Game Five had played the whole playoffs? Very bizarre.
Kevin Rooney was in again on the fourth line with Tyler Motte and Hunt. The top line was broken up. It was Zibanejad in between Lafreniere and Vatrano. Kreider was on a third line with Chytil and Barclay Goodrow.
The mismatched lines didn’t help. Eventually, Gallant reunited Kreider with Zibanejad and Vatrano. He also tried Artemi Panarin up on the first line. It was too little, too late. If not for the second power play they converted on a face-off play, they’d have been shutout. That’s how bad the offense was.
The mind-boggling part is Stamkos’ second was actually stopped by Shesterkin. However, the puck took a funny hop up in the air and just over past the goal line as the Lightning captain’s skate made contact with Igor. But the video review by the league confirmed the obvious. It was an unlucky break.
Considering how well they forechecked and defended, that was enough of a cushion to beat the Rangers. They even had trouble pulling Shesterkin due to the Lightning pressure. Once they did, all that got through was a tough Zibanejad low one-timer that Vasilevskiy padded away with nine seconds remaining. The final seconds ticked off as the Rangers could only hang their heads.
It was that kind of game. One that confused many before it started. With nobody knowing whether or not Strome would play, Kakko was penciled in on the second line. But that turned out to be false. Even the Rangers On MSG had it wrong.
Imagine how fans felt. Nobody knew what the heck was going on. Only that for some reason, Hunt was listed on the fourth line in a do or die game. It was mystifying. Gallant had lines he never even tried during the entire season. Why?
I could understand splitting up Zibanejad and Kreider to try to balance the lineup out. But subtracting Kakko just left a funny feeling. Not that he would’ve been the difference. But why separate a good line in such a big game.
It was also painfully obvious to everyone that the second line wasn’t the same with a visibly hobbled Strome. That’s the line that needed an adjustment. But Gallant didn’t. Even with Panarin skating well again, he had little help. It made it easier for the Lightning to defend.
At the start of the game, Gallant had the new Zibanejad line against the Anthony Cirelli line who dominated them over the last four games. It was that adjustment from Jon Cooper along with shifting Stamkos back to center between Palat and Nikita Kucherov that turned it around. Cirelli dominated the match-up against Zibanejad.
In fact, the Cirelli line with Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn spent several long shifts deep in the Rangers’ zone. That put Zibanejad, Lafreniere and Vatrano on the defensive throughout a lopsided first period that saw the Lightning dictate the terms.
After an initial first shot from Lafreniere on Vasilevskiy, the Cirelli unit pinned them in often. It didn’t matter which defense pair was out. K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba had a tough time getting pucks out due to the Zibanejad line struggles. They turned over the puck repeatedly.
Much of the Bolts’ work was done along the boards. They won most of the battles for loose pucks and really made life difficult. This was a theme. They’d cycle the puck and set up good shots with traffic in front of Shesterkin. That tenacious style wore on the Rangers.
Although they didn’t get to Shesterkin early, the Lightning were shooting pucks often and doubled up the Rangers in attempts (25-12) during the first. They held an 11-7 edge in shots and out-chanced the Rangers by a wide margin.
That included a few dangerous opportunities for Cirelli and Killorn on a strong shift where they had the Zibanejad line, Lindgren and Adam Fox on the ropes. Unfortunately, that was a common occurrence.
Stamkos was flying during this game. He got a tough backhand that Shesterkin handled to keep it scoreless. His line with Palat and Kucherov would buzz throughout.
After spending very little time in the Lightning end, the new third line had a good shift. They actually were able to generate a forecheck. It led to a Chytil backhand up high that Vasilevskiy stayed with. He then turned aside Goodrow. Kreider provided a lot of grunt work during that shift.
Whenever Strome was on the ice for a shift with Panarin and Copp, he was noticeably struggling. It was sad to watch him. He really shouldn’t have played. He’s been a good team guy and very good Ranger since Jeff Gorton stole him from Edmonton. It’s too bad this is probably the way he’ll go out. I wish him luck.
When Cirelli, Hagel and Killorn weren’t circling around the Rangers’ zone like killer bees, there was plenty of physicality. You had Trouba finish a check on Cirelli. He was a booing target of the fans. Erik Cernak lined up Lafreniere. He had a solid series playing his usual gritty style.
One of the best chances came halfway through the period. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare was able to get a tricky deflection on Shesterkin that he padded away. Ross Colton then missed a rebound.
The best opportunity the Rangers had was when Lafreniere got behind the Tampa defense for a backhand that Vasilevskiy turned away. It was his best save of the first.
On more sustained pressure, Cirelli came in on Shesterkin for a breakaway and tried to slide a backhand around him. But he easily got across to make the kick save to keep it scoreless with over a minute left.
Despite the Lightning having a clear edge in play, the game was tied. During the intermission segment on ESPN, Mark Messier didn’t like the Rangers’ energy. He also second guessed Gallant’s lines that were put in a blender. It was good insight.
Even following time off, the Rangers immediately allowed Cirelli to walk in and get another point blank chance 18 seconds into the second period. However, Shesterkin again robbed him. After a pair of Miller shot blocks, Hagel had a shot go off the goalpost. That line was by far the best.
The Bolts continued to press the attack. On a two-on-one, Stamkos had Kucherov for what looked like a sure goal. But Shesterkin somehow managed to get across to deny the Kucherov backhand redirect for a fantastic save. He was incredible in this game.
While the Lightning came in waves to generate quality chances, it was a lot of one and
none done for the Blueshirts. They looked like they were skating in quicksand. The only player who got good shots on Vasilevskiy was Chytil. He had a very good postseason. His stock is up.
Following a routine save for Vasilevskiy on a long try from Hunt, Rooney got into a scrum with Game Five hero Mikhail Sergachev. They each got the gate for roughing, leading to some four-on-four.
Even this was awful. The Rangers were tentative. Zibanejad and Kreider were reunited, but did zilch against Cirelli and Killorn. Panarin got a shot that Vasilevskiy stopped when he and Copp worked together against Stamkos and Kucherov. It was a whole lot of nothing.
Following a Shesterkin stop on Sergachev, Chytil got a third shot on Vasilevskiy that he handled. On that shift, Lafreniere joined Goodrow and Chytil due to Kreider taking a shift with Zibanejad at four-on-four. It really would’ve made better sense to keep Lafreniere there.
As the offense continued to go at a snails pace, the Bolts kept coming close. Cirelli had another chance sail wide. He could’ve easily had two or three goals. Then, a bad turnover allowed Pat Maroon to get a shot in front that Shesterkin denied. He was in a zone.
Just when you thought you’d seen it all, a harmless rush by Stamkos led to an innocent looking shot from the outside beating Shesterkin stick side at 10:43 of the second. On the play, Palat got the puck up for him at center. Strome pulled up. But Lindgren was on Stamkos when he let go of his wrist shot that fooled Shesterkin.
It was very hard to figure out what happened. Maybe Stamkos’ shot fooled him due to him getting it off with Lindgren there. He didn’t pick it up until it was too late. That really felt like game over. That’s how dominant the Lightning were at five-on-five.
Refs Chris Rooney and Jean Hebert were letting everything go. They missed a pair of Lightning infractions in the first. Then let go of two Rangers’ penalties in the second. That included a huge hit by Trouba where he caught Corey Perry on the train tracks. The live view made it look like the puck was there. But it was interference. Dave Jackson said those are hard to pick up.
When Trouba wasn’t getting booed, you had Shesterkin doing his best to keep the Rangers alive. He made a good stop on a Zach Bogosian backhand. He really held up his end of the bargain. Too bad the Ranger offense looked allergic to shooting and forechecking. It was hard to watch.
Panarin then got his stick up on Cernak to hand the Lightning the game’s first power play. But like most of the series except for the turning point in Game Three (they’ll regret that one for sure), they didn’t do a whole lot with it. Credit the Rangers penalty kill for holding them to one shot.
Predictably, they were again way more dangerous at even strength. Palat nearly got one. He really killed our team. It was his game-winner with 41.6 seconds left in Game Three that changed things. Then his backbreaking winner that decided Game Five. He was the best player in the series. No disrespect to Kucherov or Stamkos. It wss Palat that delivered in crunch time.
Shesterkin would also deny Killorn in tight. Ray Ferraro couldn’t believe some of the saves Igor was making. It was special. It’s too bad it didn’t lead to them stealing this game and forcing a deciding Game Seven.
With under two minutes left, Vasilevskiy made a rare stop on Vatrano. He was one of the most effective forwards. He didn’t look slow. For the period, the Rangers only got six shots through. They were being outshot 23-12 through two periods.
In the third, the Lightning again got the quick start. This time, Shesterkin victimized Hagel, who like his line mates had to be wondering what they had to do to score a goal.
Nearly two and a half minutes into the period, Perry high-sticked Chytil. He was lucky it didn’t draw blood. It was pretty reckless. Instead, it was a two-minute minor.
How to describe the first power play? Hideous. Way too predictable. Even though the top unit with Chytil replacing Strome had setup time, they got five shots blocked by a bunch of determined Bolts. One of which included Ryan McDonagh. He was very good defensively blocking six shots. Cernak also blocked Zibanejad twice.
When play returned to even strength, Lindgren rejected a Stamkos shot following a hit. He led the Rangers with four blocks in 22:33. What a gamer. Maybe next year, we’ll see an ‘A’ sewed on his jersey. He deserves one of the alternates.
Following yet another clutch save from Shesterkin on Hagel, the Rangers finally had their one shot at scoring. Trouba took a good low shot that rebounded off Vasilevskiy right to Copp. But his backhand was denied by the pad of Vasilevskiy with 13:16 remaining to cheers.
That felt like it. But the Lightning kept missing on scoring chances. Colton and Nick Paul missed the net. Then Cirelli was robbed again by Igor. He never allowed them to get any breathing room.
Eventually, Lafreniere sucked Stamkos into grabbing him for a holding minor with 8:15 left. Even though he didn’t like the call, it made up for the misses earlier in the game.
The top unit nearly drew even. But Kreider couldn’t quite tip in a Zibanejad shot pass from his spot at the side. Normally, that’s money. It just wouldn’t go in what was Kreider’s 100th career playoff game as a Ranger. Only Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have more.
When it looked like it was hopeless after Vasilevskiy stopped a Zibanejad shot, out came the second unit. This time, Copp beat Bellemare clean to get the puck back for a quick Vatrano one-timer that beat Vasilevskiy to tie the game with 6:53 left.
It was shocking. I don’t know about anyone else in our Rangers Twitter chat group that includes Moka. I didn’t expect it. It happened so fast that I couldn’t believe it. A miracle.
But before you could even think another improbable comeback by the never say die Blueshirts, they gave it right back. On a play through the neutral zone, Stamkos dusted Trouba to receive a Kucherov feed on a two-on-one. His initial shot was saved by Shesterkin. But somehow, the puck hopped up and over to go in with 6:32 left.
It was hard to fathom. Both Stamkos goals weren’t the kind you’d have expected. Eerily similar to the Sergachev goal and Palat winner last game. Maybe that’s the only way to beat Shesterkin. He was superb. Look at the last four Bolts’ goals that got past him. All very fluky.
That’s hockey. It’s a game of inches. Sometimes, the bounces go your way. Sometimes, they don’t. One thing I want to make clear. The Lightning were better than the Rangers. They earned it.
Following Stamkos’ second that answered Vatrano only 21 seconds later, the Lightning went for the kill. But Shesterkin wasn’t having it. He again stopped Hagel and then made a save on Kucherov.
After a delay in the action due to a repair of the glass, Lafreniere had a shot go high and over the top. Then Copp missed.
There weren’t many chances in the last five minutes. The Lightning checked very well. They took a lot of ice away. It’s a big reason they shutdown Zibanejad, Kreider, Panarin and Fox. They found it hard to do anything.
With Shesterkin finally off for an extra attacker, Panarin got a long shot on Vasilevskiy that he handled. Both he and Zibanejad had shots blocked. Gallant took his timeout with 17 seconds left.
Copp was able to win the offensive draw from Stamkos. That allowed Fox to make one more pass across for a Zibanejad shot that Vasilevskiy kicked away. As they scrambled behind the net, time wound down.
As the Lightning celebrated on the ice by congratulating Vasilevskiy, all the Rangers could do was look skyward and wonder what could’ve been. Zibanejad and Lafreniere both had somber looks. It really was too bad it had to end. But that’s sports.
They captured the traditional handshake. During it, Shesterkin got plenty of love from Lightning players including Vasilevskiy and Kucherov. Kreider and McDonagh had a nice moment. Zibanejad got some respect from countryman Victor Hedman, who missed the end of the second due to getting clipped by Lafreniere.
Goodrow was last in line. He shared some warm embraces with his former teammates, who love and respect him. It wss nice. It’s gotta be tough to be on the other side. The Rangers don’t get this far without Goodrow, who showed a lot of heart coming back from the bad foot. Ditto Motte, who I hope they keep.
Those are the kind of gritty players you need to reach this stage. It might not have gone their way. But the Rangers gave us a great season. They provided fans with many exciting moments. The first time back in the playoffs and they showed so much heart and character.
In the end, they really lived up to their nickname. #NoQuitInNY … thank you to the 2021-22 New York Rangers for an amazing run. Ig-or! Ig-or! Ig-or!
The Lightning now go for a three-peat. Something unheard of these days. They will go up against the well rested Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Finals. A very fast and skilled team that might be without Nazem Kadri. The Bolts made it minus Brayden Point. He may or may not be back.
As much as it hurts right now, that should be a great series. Lots of star power. Maybe I’ll do a preview if I feel up to it. I’d like to see the Lightning make history. I have friends on that side. I respect the team they have. It’s so hard to get back. They lost their whole third line due to the cap. If they pull it off, it’s right up there with any Dynasty.
I have written enough. I’ll be back in two days with more. Once we know what the injuries were, it’ll help put into the perspective what this team accomplished. Thank you to our Blueshirts for an unbelievable year! I can’t wait for 2023. I think we can win it all next season. Why not!