TAMPA, Fla. -- You want to be the best, beat the best.
The Rangers never expected anything less facing the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. But their early series lead is now gone after the Lightning won Game 4, 4-1, on Tuesday night at Amalie Arena to make this a best-of-three with two games at Madison Square Garden, including Thursday night’s Game 5.
If the Rangers are to advance to face the Avalanche by reaching their first Cup Final since 2014, it will be by dethroning a title-holder playing at top level.
“We expected to get their best,” defenseman Jacob Trouba said. “We’re one of three teams left here. It’s competitive hockey. You expect their best. You want their best and we want to show that we can beat the best. We feel we’re an up-and-coming team and we’ve arrived and we want to play these games.”
The Lightning’s play has been on an upward trend since the third period of the Rangers’ 3-2 win in Game 2 at the Garden. Specifically, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (33 saves), defenseman Victor Hedman (plus-3), ex-Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, Nikita Kucherov (one goal), Ondrej Palat (one goal, two assists) and Steven Stamkos (one goal) are all playing their best.
But these Rangers have shown they are up to the task. The only thing that’s happened this series so far is the home team has held serve four straight times. The Lightning were clearly the better team in a come-from-behind, 3-2, win in Sunday afternoon’s Game 3 and Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said his team needed to play harder in Game 4.
“We didn’t block enough shots, we didn’t finish enough hits,” Gallant said. “The good things that make you win games. That’s what we’ve got to do better.”
Still, the Rangers – who had allowed 52 shots in Game 3 – were stingier in Game 4. Igor Shesterkin only had to face 15 shots through two periods – NaturalStatTrick.com graded the Lightning with eight high-danger chances through 40 minutes – and the Lightning had 30 shots overall.
There shouldn’t be – and there won’t be – any panic on the Rangers side after they lost consecutive games for the first time since Games 1 and 2 against the Hurricanes in the second round.
“More hunger and anger,” said Artemi Panarin, who scored a late, power-play goal. “Sometimes that’s good when you lose. I don’t think we lost our confidence. Just be more hungry next game.”
For the Rangers to beat the best, they’re going to have to get their best from their best players – Panarin had no shots five-on-five – especially with their ranks being thinned.
Ryan Strome, Panarin’s usual center on the second line, did not play despite skating in pregame warmups. Third-line center Filip Chytil missed the third period with an upper-body injury after taking a hard, second-period check from Hedman. There was some question as to whether Barclay Goodrow would be able to play. He did and started in Strome’s spot but he’s clearly playing at less than 100%.
Meanwhile, the Avalanche loom as a tomorrow problem, certainly not a today problem.
But the uber-talented, uber-speedy Avalanche will be well rested after sweeping the Oilers in the Western Conference Final while the Rangers-Lightning series has developed into a lengthy battle of attrition.
The Rangers used the Lightning’s extended rest – they went eight days in between games – to their advantage in a 6-2 Game 1 win at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers, who had played Game 7 against the Hurricanes two days prior, were crisp. The Lightning were not.
But successive lengthy playoff series wear down teams. That’s just natural. The Rangers need only scour their own history for a prime example.
In 2012, the Rangers, under the hard-driving John Tortorella, went through back-to-back, physical, seven-game series in eliminating the Senators and Capitals. The top-seeded Rangers then faced the sixth-seeded Devils in the Eastern Conference Final but were visibly, physically spent and lost in six.
Also scouring the Rangers’ history book, they are 15-16 in playoff series in which they’ve been tied 2-2. That’s their today problem. The Rangers are hoping the Avalanche will be a tomorrow problem.
For that to happen, the Rangers must beat the best.