The tipping point?
New York Leads the Series 2-1
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed two goals on 30 shots for the victory. After looking not himself for the first two games of the series, today was the first time he outplayed Shesterkin en route to helping the Lightning climb back into the series.
7:37 NYR Zibanejad (10), (Fox, Panarin)(PP)
9:44 NYR Kreider (10), (Zibanejad, Panarin)(PP)
10:50 TB Kucherov (6), (Hedman, Stamkos)(PP)
1:22 TB Stamkos (6), (Perry, Kucherov)(PP)
19:18 TB Palat (6), (Kucherov, Hedman)
Ondrej Palat, Vasilevskiy, and Steven Stamkos were the game’s three stars.
That Third Period felt like the tipping point of the series. Whether or not it was remains to be seen, but the Lightning have been growing into the series like a weed for the past four plus periods of hockey and, for the first time, the Rangers looked fatigued and distressed today. The Rangers were spotted a two goal lead with two power play goals and that could’ve very easily been curtains for the Lightning, but having slipped that noose everything feels a lot different right now.
Did the Rangers deserve that two goal lead? Hell no. They were being outplayed and Shesterkin, for the second game in a row, play acted like he’d been shot in the head after receiving minimal contact in his crease. It was a laughable, soccer-style amount of simulation that was rewarded with a key power play that got the Rangers out to the 1-0 lead. I like to believe the hockey gods intervened today to make sure Shesterkin did not ultimately prosper from his gutlessness, because the power play goal he allowed to Kucherov to cut it to 2-1 was an abhorrent five hole howler that let the Lightning maintain contact and eventually take the win. Don’t get me wrong, the Lightning puck movement on that power play was excellent, but that’s a shot that was very stoppable and the presumptive Vezina winner went vintage Ben Bishop on that one.
From that point on the Lightning pretty much lived in the Rangers zone. They did most of this game, mind you, but especially from that point on. Shots ended up 51-30 in favor of Tampa Bay, and between fatigue and attrition the Rangers started to look dead tired in the final frame while the Lightning looked fresh and resolved while Tampa Bay’s power play also got sharper and sharper tying up the game with a Stamkos bomb that no goalie alive or dead could’ve denied. The Rangers had their chance to get out of the noose when Kucherov took a 4 minute high sticking penalty, but the team made sure he didn’t have to wear the goat horns with a spirited penalty kill that eventually drew an even up minor. From there on, it was only a question of whether Shesterkin would crack under the withering pressure in New York’s zone (he eventually did) or would the Rangers get a counter goal against the run off play off a mistake (they did not).
This may sound bizarre given New York’s 2-1 series lead, but I would tell you that this Game Four for New York could end up being their last stand/last big chance in this series. I get that they’re good at home. I get the supposed MSG mystique. But if this series gets to 2-2 I’d bet a considerable sum of money on Tampa Bay winning the series the way it has unfolded. Tampa Bay played four sloppy periods of hockey, in total, at the start of this series to fall down 2-0. You can chalk it up to the nine game layoff if you like. Ultimately the reason is irrelevant to the result. Their passing was awful. Their power play was not clicking. And, most importantly, their defending was betraying them. Despite all that, fancy stat wise, those games were winnable, but Vasilevskiy wasn’t sharp enough to manufacture a W in either game. Now Vasilevskiy has staunched the bleeding and started playing his game. The power play was sizzling with its puck movement today. The passing was light years better and made the team look much faster than they did in Game One and Game Two. And, most importantly, they started choking the life out of the Rangers defensively at evens, holding them to just six shots in the final frame. Injuries and fatigue are setting into New York’s bench for the first time and they’re tasting their first adversity in this series while the Lightning keep getting better and better seemingly by the period.
Game Four is huge. The Rangers remain dangerous because their power play and goaltending give them a puncher’s chance in any game. But, if the Lightning get quality goaltending of their own from Vasilevskiy, continue to manage the puck well, and show discipline, it’s clear who the better team is at even strength is. It’s not even close, in fact, and whereas it seems like New York has possibly already played their best game in this series while the Lightning still don’t seem to me to have reached quite the level they played at the end of the Leafs series and throughout the series against Sunrise.