TAMPA, Fla. — All the excitement and optimism the Rangers brought with them to Florida over the weekend looks to be gone now as the Eastern Conference Final returns to New York tied at 2 following the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 4-1 victory over the Rangers Tuesday night in Amalie Arena.
The victory gave the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning a sweep of the two games in Tampa, and gives them momentum heading into Game 5, which will be Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
The way the series has gone so far has been almost the reverse of how the last series, against Carolina, went. In that one, the Rangers started on the road and lost Games 1 and 2, before winning Games 3 and 4 at home. Ultimately, each team won at home through the first six games of that series before the Rangers won Game 7 on the road to win and advance to meet the Lightning.
Chris Kreider didn’t look at it as giving up a 2-0 series lead, as opposed to coming back from 0-2 down. He views both series as playing out the same way.
“Best of three,’’ he said. “We won two at home, lost two on the road last time. That's kind of how the series supposed to go right? In theory, you're supposed to be able to hold serve, but we certainly would have liked to have won one here. We’ve just got to go home and worry about the next game.’’
But it’s not so simple as going back home and winning in front of a friendly Garden crowd. The Rangers are going home and trying to regain their mojo while dealing with injuries to two of their top three centermen, Ryan Strome and Filip Chytil.
Strome, who suffered an apparent right knee injury in Game 3 Sunday, was a last-minute scratch for Game 4, despite taking part in the morning skate and in pregame warmups. Chytil, whose seven goals in the playoffs entering Game 4 were third-most on the team, left the game late in the second period with what the Rangers said was an upper-body injury.
Coach Gerard Gallant was thinking positively that both players will be available for Game 5.
“You don't make excuses, because that's playoff hockey,’’ he said when asked about not having Strome and then losing Chytil. “But no, you definitely missed Strome tonight, obviously. He's day to day. Hopefully he's ready for go Thursday night. And then Fil left was second period I think? He should be fine, but we'll have to wait and see again. It doesn't help when you're missing centermen, but it's part of the game.’’
With Kevin Rooney in the lineup in place of Strome, Gallant shifted Andrew Copp from right wing on the second line to center, and moved Barclay Goodrow up from his fourth-line center spot into the vacated spot on the right side of the line with Copp and Artemi Panarin. Rooney slipped into Goodrow’s spot on the fourth line, between Tyler Motte and Ryan Reaves.
The reconfigured fourth line was on the ice when Pat Maroon opened the scoring for Tampa Bay at 2:38 of the first period. Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian drove down the right wing, skated around Reaves, and cut in past defenseman Justin Braun to get off a short shot that Igor Shesterkin saved. But Maroon was there to backhand in the rebound to make it 1-0.
Though the Rangers outshot the Lightning at 10-8 in the first period, and 35-31 in the game, the shot totals were misleading. Many of the Rangers’ shots were weak efforts from wide angles and/or great distances, and were easily handled by Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. According to the website Natural Stat Trick, Tampa Bay had 28 scoring chances to the Rangers’ 18, and 13 high-danger chances to the Rangers’ six.
“We didn't get inside enough,’’ Gallant said. “I mean, Vasilevskiy made some good saves, but he didn't have to make enough good saves, you know? Not nearly as many as ‘Shesty’ had to make . . . I don't know the chances we had, quality chances — five or six probably — and you’ve got to get a lot more than that in a hockey game.’’
Nikita Kucherov’s breakaway goal gave Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead at 13:07 of the second period, and Steven Stamkos banged in the rebound of an Ondrej Palat shot to make it 3-0 at 4:56 of the third. The Rangers broke Vasilevskiy’s shutout with a power-play goal by Artemi Panarin at 16:27, with Shesterkin pulled and the Rangers skating six-on-four. Palat had an empty-net goal with 8.7 seconds left to make it 4-1.