If you can’t see the puck, it’s awfully hard to stop it.
So, when you’ve got two goalies playing the way the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin have in the Eastern Conference final, you’ve got to take away their eyes to beat them.
Aside from Brandon Hagel’s empty-net goal in the closing minute, when Shesterkin was off the ice, all of the goals in Game 5 on Thursday at Madison Square Garden were scored with screens set in front of the net.
The critical swing game in the series, played evenly from the start, ultimately came down to net-front presence. Lightning forwards did a good job of getting close to Shesterkin and blocking his view, while the Tampa Bay defense mostly boxed out well in front of Vasilevskiy.
Now, the Lightning can see a clear path back to the Stanley Cup Final for a third consecutive season.
Not even the official scorer saw Ondrej Palat’s winning goal with 1:50 remaining, as it originally was credited to defenseman Mikhail Sergachev before being changed following the game.
Sergachev’s wrist shot from the right point cleared Rangers forward Chris Kreider’s leg high in the zone and deflected off Palat’s kneecap in the slot, leading to a 3-1 win and 3-2 lead in a series the Lightning once trailed by two games.
It was the second time in the game Sergachev helped to put a puck behind Shesterkin.
Late in the second period, Sergachev tied the score at 1 with a seeing-eye shot from the center point with Corey Perry setting a screen in front. Sergachev’s shot went through the legs of Rangers forward Kevin Rooney and past Perry before going by Shesterkin, who likely never saw it.
They were the only two of 26 shots that beat Shesterkin, the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the best goaltender during the regular season.
The Lightning’s Andrei Vasileskiy, the 2021 Conn Smye Trophy winner as playoff MVP, was on top of his game, too, stopping 24 of the 25 shots he faced.
He might have been at his best during a late first-period sequence in which he stopped Jacob Trouba from the right circle, then Artemi Panarin and Filip Chytil from in close. He was there for his teammates in the third period, as well, stopping a Ryan Lindgren shot from the right post and a Frank Vatrano wraparound attempt.
The lone goal Vasilevskiy allowed came with traffic in front, as Lindgren’s sharp-angle shot from the left-side boards caught him by surprise as defenseman Zach Bogosian flashed in front of Vasilevskiy’s line of sight.
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Here’s how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 5:
Sergachev, appropriately, will be remembered for his goal (briefly two) and assist on the game-winner.
But his work on the defensive end was equally important after shutdown defenseman Ryan McDonagh missed much of the third period with an undisclosed injury.
McDonagh chased Kreider behind the Lightning net early in the period, then spun away awkwardly after the Rangers forward quickly changed direction. McDonagh left down the tunnel to the dressing room and did not return until 4:44 remained.
The Lightning, who started the game with six defensemen, were down to five and it was incumbent on Sergachev — one of just two remaining left-shot defensemen (along with Victor Hedman), to play more minutes and take on additional responsibility.
He finished with two points, three shots on goal and a blocked shot in 22:46, second-most on the team to Hedman’s 24:47.
Give and take
When Bogosian rimmed the puck around the boards behind the Lightning net midway through the second period, he expected Palat to be there. But Palat got caught up ice and was still outside the blue line when Lindgren collected the puck along the left-side boards.
With bodies in front and Steven Stamkos unable to get over in time, Lindgren threw the puck at the net, hoping for a deflection. Instead, his sharp-angle shot beat Vasilevskiy high on the blocker side, giving the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
Bogosian made up for the gaffe in the third period by preventing a potential go-ahead goal. With the game tied at 1, he dropped to the ice just above the crease to disrupt the timing of an Andrew Copp backdoor pass to Ryan Strome, who slightly overskated the puck on one of the Rangers’ best scoring chances of the night.
(Just) off the mark
Lightning forwards Nikita Kucherov and Nick Paul both got pucks past Shesterkin in the first period. But instead of a goal horn, all they heard was a clang as both pucks hit posts.
Less than two minutes into the game, Kucherov beat Shesterkin high on the glove side after a cross-corner dump pass from Stamkos but hit the crossbar. About 10 minutes later, Paul got a shot past Shesterkin’s glove from the high slot off the rush but clanked off the right post.
Riley Nash added to the clamor when he hit a third post later in the game.
Grade: C, for (oh, so) close
No one has ever questioned Stamkos’ toughness, but he seldom displays it as openly as he did in the third period.
Stamkos joined a brief scrum in front of the New York bench after Tyler Motte and Kucherov get tangled up early in the period, exchanging cross-checks with Motte and former teammate Barclay Goodrow.
But that was just the undercard to the main event.
As the final buzzer sounded, Kucherov shot the puck toward the Rangers net off defenseman Adam Fox. Fox took exception, and the two exchanged shots with their sticks. Others on the ice also got involved, including Paul and Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak.
Tensions escalated when Stamkos and Alexis Lafrenière came together behind the net. The two exchanged haymakers, with Stamkos getting in several shots to the back of the head before taking Lafrenière to the ice.
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