The opportunity is still there for the Rangers, the chance to take a commanding lead in this Eastern Conference Final against the two-time defending Stanley Cup-champion Lightning.
Nothing was lost in Game 3, other than the game.
The Rangers can still head back to New York with the achieved goal of gaining a split in the first two games at Amalie Arena. It’s a winning playoff formula: Hold serve on home ice and then win at least one on the road.
Game 4 is Tuesday night after the Lightning rallied from a two-goal deficit to win on Sunday afternoon, 3-2, as Ondrej Palat scored the winner with 41.6 seconds left in regulation.
It felt like a gut-punch of a defeat, a missed opportunity to take a 3-0 series lead and all but assure the Rangers of their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 2014 and a chance to lift the prize for the first time since 1994.
In reality, what should have happened in Game 3 did happen. The Lightning played a better game even though two power-play goals in the second period gave the illusion of Rangers’ superiority.
So now comes the crucial game, the real indication of which way this series is going to turn. A Lightning win heightens the odds it goes the full seven.
“They played great hockey,” coach Gerard Gallant said Monday as the Rangers conducted an optional practice. “They deserved to win yesterday and they did. We’re going to bounce back tomorrow, play a little grittier, a little tougher and we’ll be fine.”
Gallant’s matter-of-fact, relentlessly positive attitude and his hands-off manner with the team’s room may go a long way in why the Rangers can seize this opportunity.
His style allows the Rangers’ room to breathe. Uptight coaches tend to make the whole room tense but it’s much easier to play hockey with an upbeat outlook and some joy in the skates. It leads to confident performances, from both veterans and the younger players.
“He’s a guy that lets players be themselves,” said Ryan Reaves, who also played for Gallant with Vegas, including a run to the 2018 Cup Final. “Sometimes, you see coaches try to change a guy into something they’re not. He doesn’t try and do that. If you make a mistake, you can go out there and make up for that mistake. He might scream at you once in a while but once he screams at you, he’s done with it and he knows you’re going to go out and be better. Especially the younger players, when they’re not getting harped on every time they make a mistake, it allows them to grow a little bit quicker. You see, some of our younger guys, the confidence they’ve built. A lot has to do with his coaching style.”
Leading a series is all new territory for the Rangers and, with a heavy dose of younger players on the roster, it’s another test to see how they handle a playoff scenario.
The Rangers rallied from a 3-1 series deficit in the first round against the Penguins to advance in seven.
They rallied from a 2-0 series deficit in the second round against the Hurricanes to advance in seven.
Now, the Rangers are the team being chased.
“We know how they’re feeling being down,” 20-year-old Alexis Lafreniere said. “It’s just being able to play with the lead in games and in the series. I think we can do it.”
None of this is to say the Rangers took their Game 3 loss lightly. Their mindset entering that game was almost of a must-win, to snuff out any hope the Lightning might have.
“You’ve got to bury them when you can,” Reaves said before Game 3. “They haven’t won back-to-back by mistake.”
It didn’t work out that way because the Lightning do have a championship pedigree. Yet it was always highly, highly unlikely the Rangers were going to sweep them.
So that’s why this Game 4 is the real opportunity for the Rangers since the Lightning were likely to get at least one win.
Now, it’s up to the Rangers to – in Reaves’ words – have a chance to “bury” them.