TAMPA, Fla. — As good as the Rangers’ power play has been this season, it was a little strange to watch the unit struggle through five opportunities during the first 57 minutes and change of Saturday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But when the Rangers got that sixth chance with 2:15 left in regulation and the score tied, the power play had an opportunity to redeem itself, and it did just that.
Mika Zibanejad scored the winning goal with 16 seconds left in regulation — and one second left on the power play — to give the Rangers a 2-1 victory over the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions and a sweep of the three games the teams played in the regular season.
"You feel good when you come in on the road and beat a team like that,’’ coach Gerard Gallant said. "It was a good win for our group and now we’ve got to go play another real good team tomorrow [the Carolina Hurricanes]. So we’ll see what happens. But no, it’s more for me the last three games we played the right way. Tonight was special, but the last three games, the way we played, that’s what you like to see with our team.’’
Gallant was pleased with the way the Rangers (39-18-5) played Thursday against the Islanders even though they lost, 2-1, and they also played well against Tampa Bay. The one thing that wasn’t clicking for them, though, was the power play, which had scored in four straight games and entered as the NHL’s second-best unit statistically, scoring on 27% of its chances.
"When things are not going for you, the tendency is to kind of overwork a little bit, try to do too much,’’ Zibanejad said. "You want it so much. And I thought that was maybe the case today, and we complicated things a little bit, myself included. But at the end of the day, we got it done. And we won the game.’’
Because the first line had been on the ice when Tampa Bay’s Erik Cernak was called for high-sticking Chris Kreider, Gallant called his timeout just before the power play began in an attempt to give his top players a little rest before they went to work. It didn’t appear to help at first, but just as the power play was about to expire, Zibanejad scored on a one-timer from the left circle off a pass from Artemi Panarin.
Zibanejad downplayed the significance of beating the Lightning in all three games this season. "It’s always nice to win games and I don’t want to read into it too much,’’ he said. "We try to take it game by game and we’ve got some big games coming up now. We’ve just got to make the most of it.’’
On Sunday they’ll be facing a rested Carolina team that is 41-14-6, leads the Metropolitan Division and is third in the league in points behind Colorado and Florida.
The Lightning scored first on a somewhat controversial power-play goal by Brayden Point at 16:41 of the first period.
Victor Hedman blasted a shot through traffic that Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin (28 saves) stopped with his pads. Shesterkin didn’t know that the puck was underneath him, and no one else knew where it was, either. As Shesterkin lifted his leg to turn around and look for it, Point saw the puck and quickly jammed it into the net for his 23rd goal of the season.
The Rangers tied it on a goal by Jacob Trouba, his 10th, at 9:25 of the second period. That one needed to survive a challenge by the Lightning, who alleged Dryden Hunt had interfered with goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (25 saves).
Hunt was in the goal crease and his skate did hit Vasilevskiy’s skate, but the referees ruled the goal was good, and the Lightning were assessed a delay-of-game penalty for the unsuccessful challenge.