Tampa's Steven Stamkos scores on Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final between the Lightning and Blueshirts Wednesday. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The Rangers have made it this far via a commitment to defense. But for the second straight game, Henrik Lundqvist allowed six goals to Tampa's large group of point-producers, and not even five Blueshirts goals could stop them from falling 6-5 in overtime to the Bolts and going down 2-1 in their Eastern Final series.
The New York Rangers had won the majority of their playoff games this year via low-scoring affairs. Well, by 2-1 scores, mostly. More often than not, they depended almost wholly on the brilliance of star netminder Henrik Lundqvist and carved out only enough offense to squeeze by. However, for the third game in this post-season – this time, Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Final series with the Tampa Bay Lightning – the Blueshirts were able to score more than two goals in one night when they got five goals past Bolts goalie Ben Bishop.
Unfortunately, Lundqvist wasn't at his best for the second straight contest, allowing six goals for the second game in a row – and because of that inability to match a solid goaltending performance with a respectable showing on the scoresheet, the Rangers now trail the Lightning 2-1 in their third-round series after losing 6-5 in overtime.
New York looked good in the early part of Game 3 in Tampa Bay, jumping out to a 2-0 lead midway through the first period thanks to goals from Derick Brassard and Jesper Fast, but the focus and energy of Lightning star Steven Stamkos grew as the game went on, and his physical play and fifth goal of the season at the 11-minute mark of the opening frame gave the home team life and confidence. For the rest of regulation, the Bolts outshot the Blueshirts 26-17 and again were the better possession team.
While it's true we haven't seen Lundqvist at his best for the past two games, it isn't as if this is a freak occurrence for him when he plays the Lightning. As NHL.com's Pete Jensen noted, Lundqvist has allowed five or more goals on six occasions this year – and four have come against Tampa Bay. So although he's allowed 12 goals on 66 shots in Games 2 and 3, that's as much about the dynamic and deep Bolts offense as it is about any goaltender they face.
Ask Montreal's Carey Price, maybe before he picks up his Vezina and Hart Trophies this year. The game's top goalie couldn't stop the Lightning's outstanding forwards, so why should anyone else at this stage? Once again, Tampa Bay didn't need Stamkos to carry the entire load on offense. Once again, the Blueshirts had no answer for center Tyler Johnson, who scored his league-leading 12th goal of the playoffs and added an assist in the win. Once again, Johnson's linemates Nikita Kucherov (who scored the game-winner 3:33 into overtime and finished with two points to give him 16 in as many games) and Ondrej Palat (who scored his fifth and sixth goals of the post-season and now has 13 points in 16 games) contributed in a significant way. Once again, Alex Killorn made his presence known, this time scoring his sixth of the playoffs and chipping in an assist to give him 14 points in 16 games, and once again, Victor Hedman continued blossoming on defense, playing a game-high 28:26 and amassing a pair of assists.
Contrast that murderer's row of point-producers with the Rangers' key contributors on offense, and you'll note a very stark disparity. Even with the five goals they scored, there were glaring absences on the scoresheet. Rick Nash? Zero points, three shots on net. Martin St-Louis? Zero points, zero shots on net. Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes combined for zero shots on net. Nobody on the Blueshirts had as many shots as the four Dan Boyle got on Bishop. They only got 28 shots on net.
The Lightning, meanwhile, had six players who registered four or more shots on Lundqvist – including Killorn, who had nine on the night – and Tampa fired 40 shots in total. The Rangers have shown resiliency in their previous series against the Capitals and last season in their run to the Stanley Cup Final, but given how things are shaping up against the Bolts, a comeback seems more and more unlikely. Tampa Bay has talent throughout the lineup and players who are stepping up on offense in crucial situations. The Rangers have talent throughout the lineup, but they've been mostly unable to put together a complete effort at both ends of the ice.
The Blueshirts' Game 1 victory was by that familiar 2-1 margin, but as Tampa Bay's offense begins to flex its muscles and find its stride, the only way the Rangers may be able to salvage this series is if their scorers start to, you know, score.