The Rangers will face elimination for the sixth time in these playoffs.
Once again they find themselves with their backs to the wall after Ondrej Palat scored with 1:50 left to break a tie and give the Tampa Bay Lightning a 3-1 win over the Rangers on Thursday in Game 5 at the Garden and a 3-2 Eastern Conference Final series lead.
The loss snapped the Rangers’ eight-game home winning streak in these playoffs.
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions have won three straight games with Game 6 set for Saturday in Tampa. The Lightning are one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the third straight season.
The Rangers’ take, though, is that they’ve been in this situation before in this postseason and fought their way out of it. They were down 3-1 in the first round against the Penguins, then 3-2 against the Hurricanes and rallied to win both series. They won a Game 6 in Pittsburgh and a Game 7 in Carolina (the Rangers' only two road wins of the playoffs).
“The series isn’t over; we’ve been here before,’’ said defenseman Jacob Trouba, who had a team-high five blocks. “We’ve got to go there, win a game, come back here and play a Game 7. That’s the goal now.‘’
The odds are against them, though. According to Hockey-Reference.com, the team that takes a 3-2 lead in a best-of-seven wins 78.5% of the time. The Rangers already have beaten those odds twice this spring, but can they do it again against the champs?
Palat, who also scored the winning goal in Game 3 with 41.6 seconds left, was credited with his fourth goal of the series when a shot from the right point by Tampa Bay defenseman Mikhail Sergachev deflected off his shin guard and past Igor Shesterkin (24 saves). The goal was originally credited to Sergachev, but it was changed after the game.
After the Rangers pulled Shesterkin for an extra skater, Brandon Hagel scored into an empty net with 58.8 seconds left to make it 3-1.
It was pointed out to Rangers coach Gerard Gallant that the Lightning have won two games in the final two minutes. He was asked if that may be an indicator that Tampa Bay’s experience has taught them how to win games in crunch time. He said he thought the two late-game wins were coincidence.
“I really think it’s two plays,’’ Gallant said. “Taking nothing away from that team — they played a great game the last two games. But you know, that’s just a screened shot in front . . . they got the traffic there and you know, it went by [Kreider’s] leg up high, and you don’t see it, it goes in the net.
“We’ve had a lot of plays and it hits a defenseman or hits somebody else. I don’t think it was a defensive mistake or anything like that. It’s just, sometimes you get lucky. And they got lucky.’’
The Rangers seemed to have more energy and speed early on, and they created much more in this game than they had in the two games in Tampa.
They outshot the Lightning 8-3 in the scoreless first period (though the Lightning hit the goalpost twice) and were foiled by some stout goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy (24 saves) until defenseman Ryan Lindgren beat him with a shot from outside of the left wing circle to open the scoring at 10:29 of the second period.
But Sergachev tied it when he beat Shesterkin with a seeing-eye wrist shot from the right point through a maze of bodies at 17:34 of the second. It was Sergachev’s first of the playoffs.
Trouba was asked afterward if he thought the Rangers could have done more offensively than they did.
“I think you always look at a game and say you can get more, but I think the chances were there,’’ he said. “I think [Vasilevskiy] made some good saves. It was a tight game and it could have gone either way.
“I think that’s what makes it more frustrating for us,’’ he added. “It’s not like we’re getting the doors blown off us. We’re in these games. We’re right there. They’re tight games.
“And I mean, as much as it stings now, you can look at that and know that you’re right there and you can go to Tampa you can win a game.”