TAMPA — Now that his team has tied the Eastern Conference final series with back-to-back home wins, Lightning coach Jon Cooper can admit that maybe it took his team a couple of games to get back into playoff mode following the long layoff.
When the Lightning dropped the first two games against the Rangers, they refused to use rust as an excuse, but it had to play a role in their sloppy play. Now Tampa Bay is back to playing championship hockey, getting it done in a slightly different way Tuesday night at Amalie Arena.
Yes, they got stellar goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy and they blocked 17 shots, most of them late in the game. But in their 4-1 win, their best defense came with possessing and protecting the puck, keeping it away from the Rangers’ top offensive weapons.
The Rangers have won eight straight in Manhattan, so the Lightning must steal a game on the road to advance to their third straight Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s simple,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “It’s which team can execute in the other team’s rink at this time of the season. Obviously, we’ve made some adjustments for the past couple of games and I’ve loved our effort, I’ve loved our execution, I’ve loved our response and now let’s continue that.”
This wasn’t the Lightning’s 52-shot barrage of Game 3. Tampa Bay had just 15 shots on goal through the first two periods, but owned a 2-0 lead.
“They did the right things to win a hockey game,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said of the Lightning. “... We didn’t block enough shots, we didn’t finish enough hits, the good things that make you win games and that’s what we’ve got to do better.”
The line of Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Brandon Hagel again locked down the Rangers’ top line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider in 5-on-5. The Lightning’s top line of Ondrej Palat, Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov allowed just two shot attempts matched up against a line featuring Artemi Panarin.
“Don’t underestimate how hard it is to play in the playoffs. Extreme, intense games and then take 10 days off. You can’t replicate that coming in,” Cooper said.
The Lightning received a huge boost on Pat Maroon’s rebound goal 2:48 into the game, and playing with the lead allowed them to possess and protect the puck easier.
About two minutes after Brandon Hagel’s fight with Frank Vatrano, which ended with Hagel raising his hand to get the Amalie crowd going, Kucherov gave the Lightning a two-goal lead with a breakaway score.
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Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta collected the puck at his own blue line, looked north and passed to Palat. Palat circled around and flung the puck to Kucherov as he entered the offensive zone, and Kucherov beat Igor Shesterkin five-hole.
“We didn’t feel like we were spending a prolonged time in our defensive zone and that’s what we want,” Cooper said. “You don’t want to play defense, play offense, but we have to do it in a responsible way. We’re not going to get scoring chances every single shift, but if you chip in one here, chip in there and you’re checking, that’s what we did (Tuesday).”
Third-period goals from Stamkos and Palat gave the Lightning more breathing room.
Despite not getting much work early, Vasilevskiy stopped the first 32 shots he faced before Panarin’s power-play goal inside the final four minutes.
“He’s got to keep himself mentally sharp and then when he starts getting looks, he’s got to be there,” Cooper said. “That’s why I always marvel at goaltenders that just can keep their focus when they don’t see a lot of action and all of a sudden they’re thrown into having to make a huge save.”
After Shesterkin stole the spotlight in the first two games of the series, Vasilevskiy has stopped 62 of the past 65 shots for a .954 save percentage in the two Lightning wins.
“He’s getting his mojo back,” Cooper said. “And if anybody in this layoff probably got hurt, it was probably him. But now he’s got some games under his belt and he looks great.”
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