Was it really Game 5 in the Eastern Conference finals Sunday?
That's not exactly the way Rangers center Derek Stepan viewed it.
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With the Rangers and Lightning tied at two games apiece in the best-of-seven series, "It's really Game 1 of a best-of-three," Stepan said Sunday.
Steven Stamkos, the Lightning's star forward, had another perspective: "We're two wins away from the Stanley Cup Final. It will be a waste not to leave everything out there."
As this unpredictable series continued to unfold, both players were entitled to their assessments. What will be clear after the ice chips settled Sunday at Madison Square Garden is this: Game 6 is on Tuesday in Tampa.
And tonight's loser will have to win two straight to reach the Stanley Cup Final against either Chicago or Anaheim. The Western Conference Final is tied at two games apiece after the Blackhawks won 5-4 in double overtime early Sunday morning. The first game of the Stanley Cup Final is expected to be around June 3.
The Rangers split the first two games with the Lightning at the Garden, winning 2-1 in Game 1 and being throttled 6-2 in Game 2. In Game 3 in Tampa, the Lightning won 6-5 in overtime, and the Rangers responded with a 5-1 victory in Game 4 on Friday.
The Rangers, who are 6-3 at home during the playoffs, are seeking a second straight victory, which won't be easy. Asked what it would take for consecutive wins in this series, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said: "I think both teams are looking for that answer. Just seems that you have really two highly skilled teams right now that are going at it tooth-and-nail, competing really hard. I don't have an answer for you. We're both trying to play our best, and our best has led to in different games, different things. You're trying to make the other team pay for their mistakes, and that's what we're going to try to do again."
Vigneault expected to start the same lines , including a trio of Derick Brassard, Rick Nash and J. T. Miller, which was effective in the last period of Game 3 and all of Game 4. "Every player has a role and directive somewhat of what he's supposed to do," Vigneault said. "In J.T.'s case, he's a skilled, physical forward that is tough to handle in one-on-one situations. The reason I moved him up is because I think he's been one of our better forwards."
Meanwhile, although it wasn't close to Alex Ovechkin's guarantee of a win against the Rangers in the last series, Tampa coach Jon Cooper offered this on Ryan Callahan: "Probably tonight's the night he's going to score, because he does that on big stages, and he's probably going to do it in the building that he grew up as a hockey player."
But after his team and goalie Ben Bishop allowed 10 goals in the last two games, Cooper wasn't as concerned as much about scoring as defending. "I think if we're going to win this series, we have to judge how many scoring chances we're giving up," he said. "If we get that mindset back in your forwards, whether it's the top six or bottom six, that's got to be the mentality. I think we've gone into these last few games thinking gunslinging, we're going to shoot this one out, and we're not winning if that's going to be our mindset. We need the secondary scoring, but we need to keep the puck out of the net."
Notes & quotes: Ryan McDonagh, Dominic Moore and Jesper Fast did not participate in the morning skate for "maintenance," but were expected to dress for the game . . . Mats Zuccarello, out since April 24 with a head injury, is improving, but did not skate and is listed as day-to-day . . . Tampa defenseman Matt Carle, who did not play in Game 4, skated in the morning and could return.