“Come to the king, you better not miss.”
– Omar Little, The Wire from HBO
TAMPA, FL – The Rangers came to shoot the champs twice on their ice, and you bet they did, taking everything a desperate Lightning had during the first 20 minutes while making it out unscathed.
And when Mika Zibanijad and Chris Kreider scored in a 9:44 second-half power match, Rangers were not only 2-0 up, but they came close to taking command of this conference’s final.
They were, in those moments, young Cassius Clay cheering for Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964.
Except there was no chance—zero, Nada, New York—that the lightning would wail and wave the white towel while sitting on their communal chair. The perception was not reality. The Rangers weren’t quite that close, after all.
The heroes made their way back, dominating five against five against every line except for the children’s unit. They tied just over a minute into the third half with their second power-playing goal, first from Nikita Kucherov, and next from Stephen Stamkos. The Rangers had been forced back into their high-heeled shoes and were never able to reverse their course.
Shot after shot came to Igor Shesterkin in the third half, as there were 16 draws at the end of Rangers against seven in the attacking area. Ondrej Palat was linking his team’s 51st shot with a superb shot from Kucherov to defeat the beleaguered goalkeeper from the right circle. It’s 19:18 in the third period To raise the lightning for Sunday 3-2 game 3 victory.
However, even while excelling, even though the Blueshirts players never got to play their A game under the most generous definitions, the Rangers were 30:16 short of the finish line by two goals. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the good guys are leaving heroes in trouble.
But the guards didn’t see it that way. I wasn’t expecting anything different.
“I think we played a good road match and put ourselves in a very good place and we’re third,” Kreider said. “I think what we will take away from this match are the things that we can do better and under our control.”
Blueshirts can certainly do a much better job of inserting the tweaks in depth and going to work without ticks. They can do a much better job of having a puck in the attack area. Andrei Vasilevskiy was sharper than he was at Garden, when he allowed nine goals from 62 shots, but the Blueshirts rarely tested the goalkeeper in five against five.
The truth is mostly opposed by the verification unit Anthony Cirelli-Brandon Hagel-Alex Killorn, that the Kreider-Zibanejad-Frank Vatrano line was immersed in a five against five, barely able to launch an attack and always pushed into a defensive position.
Ryan Strom was knocked out of the game early a second with a lower-body problem, and that didn’t help his five-on-five affair, but it wasn’t like the 16th was playing hard up until that point. If Kreider, Zipanegad and Vatrano struggled in five-for-five, so did Artemi Panarin. By the way, so did Adam Fox. So did Jacob Tropa, who was sent into the penalty area for three different offenses, with Tampa Bay benefiting from the first two resulting power plays.
Before dropping the disc, Lightning coach Jon Cooper spoke about the “size” of the match. They fell 2-0 in the series and then in Game 3, his team showed their size.
“It was 2-0, but there were a lot of hockey games left and they were playing desperate and their front check forced us to make mistakes that we don’t normally make,” said Blueshirts coach Gerard Gallant. “I wouldn’t say we let them slip because they played really well, but we could have stolen one of them.”
There is no reason to doubt Rangers’ ability to hold their own in Game 4 on Tuesday. If Strom was not available, perhaps he would give Gallant more responsibility for the children. Regardless, there’s good reason to expect more from Kreider and Zibanejad, who were stifled by checking lines but thrived when power was against power. There is good reason to expect more from Fox and Trouba. There is every reason to expect better attention to detail.
But this series is about what Lightning left like what Rangers would achieve. It might be a lot.
Challengers had shot them on Sunday.