Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates after defeating...

Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates after defeating the New York Rangers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final at Amalie Arena on June 7, 2022. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

With no real answers to the question of why they managed only three goals in their two games in Tampa against the Lightning — at least none they shared — the Rangers were left counting on a return home to Madison Square Garden on Thursday for Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Final to turn things around in the best-of-seven series.

But as much energy as they expected to draw from 18,000 roaring fans, that doesn't solve the problem of how the Rangers are going to beat Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, the one goalie in the league who might be the equal (or better) of their own Igor Shesterkin. Vasilevskiy allowed six goals in Game 1 of the series, then six in the next three games combined.

After their 4-1 loss in Game 4, the Rangers all said they didn’t generate enough offense against Vasilevskiy in that game, despite their 35-31 advantage in shots on goal.

“We didn't get inside enough,’’ coach Gerard Gallant said. “Vasilevskiy made some good saves, but he didn't have to make enough good saves, you know?’’

Normally, when players are asked how to beat an elite goalie they are facing, the response is the same: Go to the net, get in front of him and make him uncomfortable, obscure his vision, get pucks to the net, and maybe try and tip shots on the way in to change direction.

Chris Kreider, though, offered a little more insight on how to attack Vasilevskiy.

“It wasn't second- or third-chance opportunities [that beat Vasilevskiy] in the first two home games,’’ Kreider said. “It's moving east-west across the middle of the ice, getting the puck off your stick in less than half-a-second. I don't care who's in net, every goalie in the world struggles with the puck that goes east-west, has to battle through traffic, and then as it gets released on net, they can't get set to [face] it.

“That's what gives us our best chance,’’ he said. “And I think that, to a guy, we could say we probably all received a pass like that [in Game 4] and got it, picked our head up, tried to pick a spot, as opposed to getting it off quick. Even if he does make the save, you know, the rebound's going to be more difficult to control from a pass like that.

“Those are the things we were doing the first couple of games,’’ he continued. “Those are things that we've done successfully when we've generated offense over the course of the season. It's like, unselfish shooting, in a lot of ways. You might not necessarily score, but the puck's going to be there, the puck's going to be around the net.’’

The Rangers are not a volume-shooting team, like the Carolina Hurricanes or Pittsburgh Penguins, who like to pile up the shots on goal with the logic that making the goalie work, even if he’s looking at a bunch of routine shots, increases the odds he will make a mistake, or will get tired, or some weird thing will happen that will result in a goal.

Instead, with Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin and Adam Fox generating most of the offense, the Rangers are an east-west team, one with the basketball-type mentality of passing up a good shot in order to get a better shot. Panarin and Fox, in particular, are always thinking pass-first, looking for teammates cutting to the back post for wide-open tap-ins.

The New York Rangers are about to face elimination in the Stanley Cup playoffs, after dropping Game 5 to the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-1 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. Credit: Newsday/Reece T. Williams

It’s probably easier to get those at home, where the Rangers have the last line change and Gallant gets to control the matchups. With that advantage, Gallant is better able to get Zibanejad’s line, with Kreider and Frank Vatrano, away from the line centered by Anthony Cirelli, which matched up against them in both games in Florida.

Of all the advantages of playing at home — players sleeping in their own beds, a supportive crowd — having the last line change is probably the biggest, Gallant said.

“It's a combination of all those,’’ Gallant said when asked why it’s better to play at home. “There's not one that stands out. Obviously, the last change in this series has been a little bit bigger than the other ones."

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