NEW YORK — Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev spent the offseason working on his shot, refining his technique to improve his accuracy.
During the regular season, Sergachev had 38 points, his most since his rookie season, and seven goals. But in the postseason, with games more tightly contested and goals at a premium, Sergachev hadn’t scored heading into Thursday’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers.
But part of the Lightning’s confidence comes from their trust in themselves. They’re at their best when they’re most patient, knowing that with time, a hero will emerge.
And needing to steal a game at Madison Square Garden in what had become a best-of-three series, it was Sergachev’s star that shined brightest in a 3-1 comeback win for a 3-2 series lead.
The Lightning can earn a third straight trip to the Stanley Cup final with a win Saturday at Amalie Arena.
Sergachev scored the tying goal late in the second period, and his shot with 1:50 remaining in regulation deflected off forward Ondrej Palat’s kneecap and into the net, putting the Lightning ahead.
Forward Brandon Hagel scored an empty-net goal in the waning seconds.
“I haven’t scored a lot of (goals) but definitely felt great,” Sergachev said. “I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like that before. So it’s just a really good feeling to help a team win the game.”
The Lightning have won three straight since dropping the first two games of the series. Thursday’s win snapped the Rangers’ eight-game postseason winning streak at Madison Square Garden.
The win was also the Lightning’s third this postseason that came in the final two minutes of regulation. The other two also came at pivotal times. Palat’s goal with 41.6 seconds left won Game 3 versus New York, and forward Ross Colton’s goal with 3.8 seconds left in Game 2 against the Panthers gave the Lightning two road wins to open their second-round series.
“It’s defend (until) the end,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “And we’ve got some guys that can make some plays, and you never know when it’s going to come. I think that comes with experience. Certainly you can lean on that.
“You never know when that moment is going to be in the game, and you don’t push for it. Don’t go out of your way to try to make something happen.”
With the Lightning trailing 1-0 deep into the second period, Sergachev wristed a shot from inside the blue line that went through Rangers forward Kevin Rooney’s legs and was untouched through traffic until it found the back of the net past goalie Igor Shesterkin with 2:26 to go.
“You try to open up seams,” defenseman Victor Hedman said of Sergachev’s shot. “I think ‘Sergy’ is one of the best in the league on the back end to kind of change his shooting angle. Open up those hips and faking out the forwards but pulling pucks and keeping your head up, you usually find your shooting lanes, and he did that (Thursday). So that was huge.
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“Usually you bear down and try to hit it as hard as you can. But sometimes those wristers are just as good, so he’s proven for us that those work just as fine.”
The winner came when Sergachev calmly took a pass at the right point, saw Stamkos coming to the net from the far side and Palat also approaching, and flicked the puck at the goal. It barely nicked Palat’s kneecap to get past Shesterkin.
“It’s not like it’s a super crazy play,” Sergachev said. “It’s just a simple play that we practice all the time. Guys go to the net, (defensemen) shoot the puck.
“I was just thinking, shoot as quick as possible off the stick. Because I knew our guys were there. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The Lightning have gotten to this point by playing remarkable defense and also by outplaying the Rangers at even strength. On Thursday, the Lightning had more than double the high-danger scoring chances than the Rangers, 12-5 in 5-on-5 play.
Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 24 of the 25 shots he saw. Over the Lightning’s three wins in this series, he has saved 86 of 90 shots for a .956 save percentage.
“If you’re going to go this far (in the playoffs), some fortunate things have probably happened to you, some bounces have gone your way,” coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s been times they haven’t gone our way.
“I’ve said about the group, we’ve been through these games and you’re not going to win them all. But there’s a mindset with the group, especially about not changing the way we play, trying to take advantage of our strengths and maybe their weaknesses.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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