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Regulars return, but Lightning fall again to Rangers

Tampa Bay is 0-2-1 in its last three games after losing for the second time in three days to New York.
Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) battles for the puck between Lightning center Brayden Point (21) and defenseman Victor Hedman (77) during the second period Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) battles for the puck between Lightning center Brayden Point (21) and defenseman Victor Hedman (77) during the second period Sunday at Madison Square Garden. [ RICH SCHULTZ | Associated Press ]
Published Jan. 2
Updated Jan. 3

The Lightning were more themselves in terms of personnel Sunday at Madison Square Garden, but after their 4-0 loss to the Rangers, it’s clear something is missing for the reigning back-to-back Stanley Cup champs.

The Lightning had most of their regulars in the lineup for the first time since before the holiday break after starting goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and two-way forward Anthony Cirelli exited the COVID-19 protocol.

Also, top right-shot defenseman Erik Cernak returned from a foot injury after missing 10 games.

Despite that, the Lightning continued to struggle, falling for the third straight game, including two regulation losses. After entering the break leading the league in points, the Lightning (21-8-5) are 1-2-1 since.

“We’ve had a bad stretch here of bad games,” forward Pat Maroon said. “Reset, figure out what we need to fix and just go back to working hard. I think that’s what it comes down to.

“Just, we’ve got to compete and our skill will take over.”

Rangers center Mika Zibanejad, who scored the decisive shootout goal in New York’s 4-3 win Friday at Amalie Arena, had a hat trick Sunday, scoring two of his goals on power plays in the first period.

New York was without star forward Artemi Panarin, who was placed in the COVID-19 protocol Sunday.

Despite 38 shots, the Lightning were shut out by Igor Shesterkin, just the second time in 34 games this season they were held without a goal. They didn’t create traffic in front of the net to take away Shesterkin’s line of sight and couldn’t produce many secondary chances that make their shoot-and-scramble game effective.

“I thought throughout the game we had a lot of zone time,” Cirelli said. “I thought we had to try and get in (Shesterkin’s) eyes a little bit more, and it looked like throughout the game he was seeing a lot.”

Coach Jon Cooper said players returning from the protocol needed more time to shake off the rust. Cirelli, whose neutral-zone turnover led to the last of the Rangers’ three first- period goals, said he thought his passes and reads were off.

“They’re not the same players,” Cooper said. “Their stamina is not there, their hands aren’t there, their (ability) reading the plays aren’t there. They’re a little bit slow, and you’re just going to have to weather through this. So these guys need to get back into it.”

In his first game since Dec. 21, Vasilevskiy allowed four goals on 21 shots, though the Rangers made things tough for him early by taking away his line of sight as they jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first 15 minutes.

Zibanejad scored from the top of the left circle 7:44 into the game, shooting through a screen set by Chris Kreider.

He struck again during a 4-on-3 Rangers power play with 7:23 left in the period on a pass through the crease that deflected off Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh’s stick blade past Vasilevskiy.

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Just over two minutes later, former Lightning forward Barclay Goodrow forced a neutral-zone turnover by blocking Cirelli’s cross-ice pass, then found forward Ryan Strome entering the slot for a wrister that went through defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and past Vasilevskiy.

“The chances we gave up were Grade-A ones,” Cirelli said, “so we’ve got to be better in front of ‘Vasy,’ for sure.”

The Lightning were clearly a step behind the Rangers, Cooper said.

“Our decision-making, our timing, like, everything, we were just slow,” he said. “You can’t play this game slow.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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