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Lightning fall into two-game hole against Rangers

Tampa Bay’s streak of 17 straight postseason wins following a loss is snapped in a Game 2 loss.
Fans celebrate a third-period goal by Rangers center Mika Zibanejad as Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is seen in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final Friday in New York.
Fans celebrate a third-period goal by Rangers center Mika Zibanejad as Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is seen in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final Friday in New York. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 4|Updated Jun. 4

NEW YORK — Jon Cooper says his team never talked about its remarkable streak of winning playoff games coming off a loss. But it certainly discussed perfecting the art of self-correcting and responding with better efforts.

It had been part of the Lightning’s recipe for winning. And because of it, Tampa Bay had been 17-0 coming off a playoff loss.

With Friday night’s 3-2 loss to the Rangers in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final, the Lightning’s streak is over. The Rangers accomplished something that 10 previous opponents didn’t.

And now the Lightning are in an unfamiliar position, trailing 2-0 as the series heads to Tampa for Game 3 on Sunday.

“At some point, you might lose two in a row in the playoffs,” Cooper said. “The fact that we haven’t for how many years is remarkable. So you could take a second here and say, ‘Hell of a job, boys,’ but for the most part, streaks do come to an end, and unfortunately it came to an end (Friday).

“Did it knock us out of the playoffs? It did not. Do we have a hill to climb? There’s no question. I don’t think I’m being captain obvious saying that. But I do think that we have better in us.”

The win was the Rangers’ fourth straight and their eighth at Madison Square Garden in these playoffs.

The Lightning are in the position the Rangers were in their past two series. New York came back from 3-1 down in their first-round series against Pittsburgh, and 2-0 and 3-2 down to Carolina.

“It’s been a heck of a ride in terms of responding after losses in the past couple of years,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “It shows the character of this group. So (the Stanley Cup is) the hardest trophy to win, and you’re going to come across some adverse moments. This is certainly one of them. But you just have to look at the team we’re playing and how they got here.”

The Lightning didn’t rebound from their Game 1 loss because they made similar mistakes. They struggled to protect the puck, and their turnovers gift wrapped too many scoring chances and too much possession time for the Rangers.

“We just turned the puck over too much,” Cooper said. “That was it. If you’re not going to manage the puck against good hockey teams, you’re just playing with fire, and it was egregious what was happening, especially from the first five minutes of the first (period) all the way to, like, halfway through the second.

“That isn’t a game plan. That isn’t what they’re doing. You’ve got to manage the puck. We just didn’t do it (Friday).”

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The Lightning know they have to play their best hockey of this postseason to dig out of their hole.

The Rangers just seem quicker than the Lightning. They’ve made the Lightning uncomfortable, forcing them to the outside and picking apart their east-west passes, taking away one of the Lightning’s best weapons, their forecheck.

Down 3-1 after forward Mika Zibanejad’s goal early in the third period, Tampa Bay came within one on Nick Paul’s third postseason score with 2:02 left in the game while playing with an extra attacker. But the Rangers prevented the Lightning from getting any closer with a fine defensive effort in the game’s waning moments, highlighted by defenseman Jacob Trouba’s diving block on Stamkos’ one-timer with 62 seconds remaining.

“We’re just getting momentum off each other,” Paul said, “playing the right way, putting (the puck) deep, winning those battles. And then once we got those battles, we started moving our feet, making plays, getting pucks to the net.

“I think just our urgency to win those battles and keep our feet moving in the (offensive) zone really turned the table at the end. … Obviously not the result we wanted, but … take that third period, remember it and just keep going from there.”

Zibanejad put the Rangers up 3-1 81 seconds into the third period, surging to the net after Nikita Kucherov’s sloppy clearing attempt from the blue line was intercepted by forward Chris Kreider, allowing Zibanejad a clear shot from the left circle, where he beat Andrei Vasilevskiy above his blocker.

Vasilevskiy finished with 25 saves.

The Lightning got the first goal of the game. They scored 10 seconds into a power play as Kucherov flung a puck past goalie Igor Shesterkin 2:41 into the game.

Shesterkin had 29 saves.

There wasn’t much the Lightning could do about the Rangers’ first goal. Forward Brandon Hagel blocked defenseman K’Andre Miller’s first shot, but the puck kicked back out to Miller, who found a lane on his second chance to tie it at 1.

The Lightning were stung by the Rangers’ “kid line” again for the go-ahead goal, as forward Kaapo Kakko parked along the back post and defenseman Adam Fox fed him through the slot for a wide-open score.

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

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