TAMPA, Fla. — It was a no-brainer for NBCSN’s “Wednesday Night Rivalry” series — last season’s Eastern Conference finalists, still loaded with talent and full of recent inter-franchise history, and both now with plenty to prove.
In the end it was the Rangers who did the proving Wednesday night, securing a 5-2 victory to close out the calendar year.
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“I think we all needed it,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. “Let’s be honest: December has been absolutely awful. To finish like that I think it’s good for us. We had a lot of good talks the last 24 hours about coming back to the team we really are and playing to our strengths.”
They did so with a solid all-around effort that for one night at least stopped a 4-10-2 slide that most notably included an 0-6-2 slump on the road dating to a victory at Florida Nov. 21.
Tampa Bay, which has struggled all season to string together victories, had beaten the Rangers in five consecutive regular-season games dating to Dec. 29, 2013 — two years and a day earlier — and also won that conference final over the Blueshirts last May, in seven games.
“We needed it, that’s for sure,” said Tanner Glass, who was awarded the honorary Broadway Hat for a hit he put on Brian Boyle that landed the 6-7, 243-pounder on the Rangers bench, and landed Glass in the penalty box. “We’ve been working hard and it hasn’t been going the right way for us.”
The score was tied at 2 entering the third period, then the Lightning very nearly took the lead, but Marc Staal swept away a puck just before it crossed the goal line.
“I just saw Hank get a piece of it so I knew it was going to start going to the net and I just put my stick on it and just got it in time,” Staal said.
Shortly thereafter, Dominic Moore converted off a turnover by Victor Hedman, making a series of nifty moves to beat Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop with 16:44 remaining.
“I just tried to stay poised as I came in,” Moore said. “He takes up a lot of net. I just tried to stay calm.”
Viktor Stalberg and Rick Nash added empty net goals, and the Rangers were able to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
With the Rangers ahead 2-1 in the final seconds of the second and Glass in the box for interfering with Boyle, Anton Stralman’s close-in shot trickled past Lundqvist and over the goal line to make it 2-2.
The goal initially was waved off because the whistle was blown, then allowed, then confirmed on replay.
Lundqvist said he thought he had heard a whistle but after seeing the replay believed it perhaps was the right call. He and others said the key was how the team responded during and after the second intermission.
“That’s what I thought we did a good job of; we stayed with it, we kept our focus,” Staal said.
Said Lundqvist, “Everybody was positive. Maybe not me. I was still upset. It’s the way you respond that matters.”
That is true moving forward, too. One victory does not mean the slump is over. But it beat the alternative.
“It should just be there every night,” Lundqvist said of the team’s energy level, “and I think we’re going to have better results in finding our way back.”