TAMPA – The New York Rangers did not come into the Eastern Conference Final naively underestimating the challenge of knocking out the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
They knew it would be hard.
Now they know just how tall of a task this is going to be.
The Rangers won Games 1 and 2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at home, but were outplayed and lost 3-2 in Game 3 at Amalie Arena on Sunday. They lead the best-of-7 series 2-1 ahead of Game 4 here Tuesday (8 pm ET; ESPN, ESPN +, CBC, SN, TVAS).
“We know they’re not going to give you anything for nothing,” coach Gerard Gallant said Monday. “They’ve won, what, 10 series in a row? We’re going to have to take it from them. We’re going to have a real good team. We’re going to have to go out there and take it from them. “
The Rangers’ experience as the team trailing in each of the first two rounds gave them an idea of how hard the Lightning were going to push in Game 3.
[RELATED: Complete Rangers vs. Lightning series coverage]
But they weren’t ready to match it.
The Lightning outshot the Rangers 52-30, including 19-6 in the third period. The Rangers built a 2-0 lead midway through the second period on power-play goals from Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreiderbut it’s only like that angered the Lightning more.
Tampa Bay tied the game with power-play goals from Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos and won it on Ondrej Palat‘s goal at 19:18 of the third period.
“I just think they were ready to compete a little harder than we were,” Gallant said. “That was the difference in the hockey game. You can say matchups, you can say different stuff, but overall I think their compete level was a little higher than ours. We have to match that tomorrow, get above it.”
Again, the Rangers should know exactly what to expect from the Lightning in Game 4 because they were in that position down 3-1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference First Round and 2-0 against the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.
They were resilient, winning Games 5, 6 and 7 against Pittsburgh, all in come-from-behind fashion. They came back to tie the series against Carolina, lost Game 5 in what was their worst performance of the series but rebounded to win Games 6 and 7 by a combined 11-4.
“We’ve got to compete, we’ve got to battle, we’ve got to play a little grittier than we did,” Gallant said. “It’s 2-2 or it’s 3-1, let’s see where it goes.”
To make it 3-1, the Rangers can not allow the Lightning to have the puck as much as they did in Game 3.
The Rangers controlled all of Game 1 and won 6-2 because they had the puck and were forcing turnovers when they did not. They controlled at least the first half of Game 2 because of the same reasons.
Video: Lightning win power-play duel in Game 3, 3-2
The Lightning started to control the pace and puck possession, managing it way better too, midway through the second period of Game 2, but the Rangers got a goal from Zibanejad 1:21 into the third period to take a 3-1 lead that they did not relinquish, eventually winning 3-2.
But the Lightning never stopped attacking in Game 3 and it pushed the Rangers back. New York’s 2-0 lead lasted for all of 66 seconds because Kucherov scored at 10:50 of the second period. The Rangers’ 2-1 lead did not get past 1:22 of the third period, when Stamkos scored.
It was 2-2 for the next 17:56, but it felt like the Lightning were dominating. They had the puck. They were playing in the offensive zone. They were generating chances. The Rangers could not do much of anything offensively, including when they had a power play in the third.
“With them getting the early one on the power play we could not switch back to playing attacking hockey like we usually do,” Rangers forward Andrew Copp said. “I do not know if we were trying to come out and play defensive. I do not think that was the talk at all. We know that third goal is going to be important kind of like in Game 2, but once they got the [tying] goal we just could not get ourselves going north and attacking. “
That is what they know they must do from the start in Game 4. It’s what they did to come back against the Penguins and Hurricanes.
If they can do it again, they’ll put themselves in position to leave here one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final with a chance to do it in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden, where they have won eight playoff games in a row .
But this is the Lightning, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. Holding them down, preventing them from coming back, might be the Rangers’ biggest challenge yet, perhaps even greater than facing elimination five times in the first two rounds.
“You do not want to give a team like this any breathing room,” forward Ryan Reaves said of the Lightning. “You’ve got to bury them when you can.”