The Karaoke Cam’s song du jour was, fittingly, The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” Surely every fan crooning along at Madison Square Garden has long had faith in this being a special group of Rangers.
“No Quit in New York,” which sounded like a trite training camp T-shirt slogan in September, has come to define a season and, certainly, this playoff run. It’s “Ya Gotta Believe” for this generation.
The Lightning, whose resilience has fueled back-to-back Stanley Cup championships and was supposed to fuel a bounce-back performance on Friday night, are learning all of this the hard way. They walked into the Garden late Friday afternoon 17-0 after playoff losses during their run of 10 straight playoff series wins and exited shortly before midnight for their flight back home at 17-1.
The Rangers won Game 2, 3-2, to take a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final, and this win was looking as dominant as Wednesday night’s 6-2 drubbing in the opener until midway through the third period. Nick Paul brought the Lightning within a goal at 17:58 of the third period as they skated six-on-five and Igor Shesterkin had to make three more saves, two from close range, to close it out.
“We just knew we had to put out a solid defense, keep blocking the puck, and I just believed in the guys,” Shesterkin said after making 29 saves. “We all kept working together to keep the score 3-2.”
Shesterkin makes it sound so simple. In a way, it is for the Rangers because there are few complexities in what coach Gerard Gallant wants.
“I say it all the time, it’s a huge win for us, but we just get ready for the next one,” Gallant said of a series that will shift to Tampa for Game 3 on Sunday afternoon. “It’s in the past, behind us. To play the way we played the last two games, that’s the way we’re going to have to play to win this series. We want to battle hard. We want to compete hard. We’ve been a tough out so far.
“I think we’re a good hockey team. We’ve played great hockey in the playoffs and we find ways to win games.”
They stand two victories away from their first Stanley Cup Final since 2014 — the franchise last lifted the Cup in 1994, and doesn’t that seem like a lifetime ago? — and made the Lightning look old and slow for the first 110 minutes of this series.
It was evident all over the ice but particularly so along the walls. The Rangers got to pucks first, bottled up Lightning skaters along the boards and knocked the puck off the Lightning’s sticks with frequency.
This is not about X’s-and-O’s. The Rangers are simply outworking the Lightning.
But it’s also Shesterkin being better than the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. Mika Zibanejad is playing dominant hockey, as is The Kid Line. Defenseman K’Andre Miller scored on a nasty shot from the slot in the first period. Defenseman Adam Fox, Jericho’s own, set up Kaapo Kakko’s first-period goal and Zibanejad’s winner at 1:21 of the third period, and is playing like someone who won the Norris Trophy.
Eight other teams in 10 previous playoff series have tried and failed to beat the Lightning twice in a row.
Now the Rangers will go for three.
“Guys take the losses personally,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
The Lightning are savvy enough to know that they are far from finished in this series. And it is a playoff trope that no series truly starts until the home team loses.
But the Rangers are savvy enough to know they can beat the Lightning if they just continue doing what they have done. The Lightning would have to win four of five to advance to their third straight Cup Final — the same deficit the Rangers overcame against the Hurricanes in the second round — and little in the first two games suggests that will be the case.
“We know they’re going to push back,” Miller said before the Rangers did not allow that to happen in Game 2.
Both teams have relied on their resilience.
The Rangers are winning that battle, too.