TAMPA, Fla. - When you allow a total of 12 goals in two straight playoff losses, there are no guarantees.
But there is a checklist -- a long checklist.
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A loss to Tampa Bay on Friday night would put the Rangers in a 3-1 hole in the Eastern Conference finals against the quick-strike Lightning, so the top of that list has to be playing a tighter, more physical defense in Game 4 of the best-of-seven series.
"We won the Presidents' Trophy this year by playing good defense, and we didn't give our goalie a chance to be successful the past two games," said Derick Brassard, one of three players that the team made available to the media on an off day. "When you look at the big picture, yeah, it's nice we scored a lot of goals [in Wednesday night's 6-5 overtime loss], but we just have to go back to basics."
Consider: The Lightning scored 17 goals in six games against Montreal's Carey Price, a shoo-in for the Vezina Trophy. They already have 13 in three games against Henrik Lundqvist, who will start again Friday night. The Lightning has an NHL-leading 47 goals in 16 post-season games and has netted at least five goals five times.
"Our foundation is our defensive play and not giving up offensive chances against as much, so it is a little bit shocking," said captain Ryan McDonagh, who ran down the checklist. "They rely on high-octane, fast-paced plays, taking what you give them. If you're going to give them an opportunity to make an extra pass and then create an opportunity in front of the net, they're going to look for that. We have to be a lot stronger in front of them, for sure. We definitely are having our breakdowns in front . . . But we've got to trust our instincts here, trust our structure."
Coach Alain Vigneault insisted that the Rangers "are structurally sound. That's one of the reasons why we are getting turnovers. Even though you're in structure, they've got the skill level to beat you one-on-one sometimes."
And Vigneault observed: "It's as quick a series as I've been part of in a long time."
But Vigneault also pumped up the Lightning's tires. "I don't think we can stop their top players. We didn't totally stop Crosby and Malkin. We didn't totally stop Ovechkin. These guys are going to get some looks. Right now when they're getting the looks, it's finding a way, through different circumstances, to get to the back of our net. But we're trying to defend as well as we have been in the past. Maybe it doesn't look it, but we're trying."
Brassard, who scored the opening goal on Wednesday night, conceded that winning is "not going to be easy" but added, "We're not panicking, we're confident. We're still in a pretty good position. By winning the game tomorrow, we're going back into our building 2-2."
Notes & quotes: For the first time since being struck in the head by a shot on April 24, Mats Zuccarello practiced with the Rangers' extras who were taking shots at Cam Talbot at Amalie Arena. Zuccarello, who will not play in Game 4, previously said he's doing better but did not speak to the media Thursday. He waved and smiled when leaving the ice. "He's coming along," Vigneault said. "There are a number of steps. This is one of them."