There was a moment during the Rangers’ postgame media availability that said everything about the team’s strong leadership and why this team finds itself in the thick of the Stanley Cup chase.
Chris Kreider cut in to take responsibility for a defensive miscue on the winning goal. The proverbial sword-falling showed how accountable the players are to each other, which will continue to be a key factor as the two-time defending Cup champion Lightning cut their series lead in the Eastern Conference Final to 2-1.
The Rangers now face their first bit of adversity in this series. The Lightning won Sunday afternoon’s Game 3, 3-2, on Ondrej Palat’s goal off Nikita Kucherov’s beautiful feed with 41.6 seconds left in regulation.
So back to the news conference.
Mika Zibanejad was being asked about Palat’s winner, but almost as soon as the question began, Kreider placed his right hand on Zibanejad’s left arm, indicating he was going to answer.
“I’ve got to get the puck out,” Kreider said. “I’m puck-watching. I should have came and planted instead of filtering a little too far back to the net. The puck goes over my head. I take a swing at it. It was probably almost a high-sticking penalty. Everyone was accounted for.
“I didn’t need to over-backcheck and take myself that close to the paint. If I’m planted, it comes right to me and I put the puck on the ice and get it out.”
All teams, across all sports, usually speak positively of their leaders. Sometimes it can be the truth.
Kreider is one of six (six?!?) Rangers who wear an “A” as alternate captain, in lieu of Gerard Gallant handing out the “C” this season. But he certainly acts like a captain.
During the first round against the Penguins, Kreider grabbed an iPad from Zibanejad’s hands, smashed it to the ground as his linemate tried to review a failed breakaway and yelled at him, “We don’t need second-guessing!”
Regardless of whatever cliches come associated with talk of leadership, the Rangers will have to rely on it even further now that the Lightning have found their game.
The Rangers won Game 1, 6-2, at Madison Square Garden, but the final 10 minutes of their 3-2 win in Game 2 provided a Game 3 preview. The Lightning pressed hard, scored a late goal skating six-on-five and nearly scored the equalizer.
There was no way the Lightning, with their championship pedigree, were going to be an easy out. Returning to Amalie Arena, it was almost as if the organization wanted to remind itself of its greatness, with Stanley Cup rings on display everywhere just in case anyone had forgotten.
The in-house hype man wore a ring. So did the organist. So did the anthem singer, and the scoreboard camera made sure to showcase that.
Still, the Rangers took a 2-0 lead on power-play goals by Zibanejad and Kreider before Kucherov scored a power-play goal midway through the second period and Steven Stamkos added another early in the third.
Making sure this series is played more five-on-five rather than having special teams determine outcomes also is something that’s incumbent on the Rangers’ leadership.
“I think any team would say they want to keep it five-on-five,” Kreider said. “We want to establish our forecheck, maintain puck possession, force them to take penalties and stay out of the box ourselves. They’ve got a very dangerous power play.”
Another “A,” defenseman Jacob Trouba, had a tough Game 3 with three minors. His second-period interference penalty led to Kucherov’s power-play goal. His third-period hold led to Stamkos’ power-play equalizer. Then his tripping penalty negated a Rangers power play.
Trouba is the acknowledged leader of the defense corps, and his hard hits have been difference-makers throughout the playoffs.
“He’s played a lot of games, he’s a leader for us, he bounces back,” defenseman Adam Fox said. “I don’t think anyone here is blaming Troubs. I’m sure he’ll be the same guy come next game.”
He will have to be, as will Kreider and the bevy of Rangers leaders against the Lightning’s improved play. Their examples will determine the Rangers’ response.