When the New York Rangers published their message about taking a step back and evaluating their organization as whole many felt as though a shift had occurred in the entire hockey paradigm. The Rangers had been a stalwart and model franchise since the 2004 lockout. By effectively “giving up” on the season and focusing on retooling their roster, one of the NHL’s biggest franchises was about to embrace losing—willingly. That feeling permeated throughout the Lightning’s drubbing of the Rangers 5-3 at Amalie Arena Thursday night.
This matchup used to be a must-see game for hockey fans. Tampa Bay and New York were both good hockey teams who put forth entertaining and close games over the last few years. This doesn’t even take into account the 2015 Eastern Conference Final that Tampa Bay managed to win by an edge of 4-3. Even earlier in the season the Lightning and Rangers played a closely contested game that ended up going in the Rangers favor when J.T. Miller won the game in OT on November 2nd.
Those days appear to be gone now. Tampa Bay dominated this game from the get-go and the Rangers looked bewildered at what was occurring. The Rangers didn’t record a shot on goal until 11 minutes into the first period, and by that point, Tampa Bay had 16 and was leading 2-0 on the scoreboard. Cedric Paquette scored early off of a rebound from a Chris Kunitz shot just 2:31 into the period. Adam Erne followed up five minutes later after Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn won a puck battle along the boards. Erne recovered the loose puck in the high slot and squeezed a shot past Henrik Lundqvist to make it 2-0 before the game was 10 minutes old.
New York managed to get some offensive momentum at the end of the first period, but once the first intermission came the shot clock told the story—21-5 in Tampa Bay’s .favor
The second period wouldn’t bring much positivity for the Rangers. Anthony Cirelli scored 1:53 into the period after tipping a Mikhail Sergachev point shot. Tampa Bay continued to dictate the pace of the game and it wasn’t until New York finally managed to sustain some offensive pressure that they pushed the Lightning defense back to get on the board. After forcing a turnover in their zone the Rangers moved the puck up the ice where Kevin Hayes coasted into the high slot. Hayes fired it on net and the rebound bounced towards Ryan Spooner. Spooner settled the puck down and fired it past Vasilevskiy to give the Rangers some life. Down 3-1 and being doubled on the shot clock isn’t the best situation to be in, but all the Rangers needed was to sustain some offensive pressure and get some bodies in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy.
They got a great opportunity 20 seconds after Spooner made it a two-goal game when Ryan Callahan was called for tripping. Tampa Bay stood tall, however, as they forced the Rangers’ shooters to shoot from the outside or make poor passes while in the offensive zone.
New York did manage to sustain some offensive pressure once the power-play was done and it looked like the Rangers had finally gotten their feet under. Unfortunately, their play in the defensive zone had finally gotten to Lundqvist. In one of the more bizarre moments of the season, Lundqvist came out of his net to play the puck behind the net after Jake Dotchin had dumped it in from the blue line. Cirelli was already skating to chase the puck (which Lundqvist had to have seen) behind the net, and once Lundqvist touched the puck Cirelli simply stole and passed it to a wide-open Chris Kunitz to make it 4-1 at 12:35.
This was the end of Lundqvist’s night as he was pulled in favor of Alexandar Georgiev. The Rangers seemed to respond to Lundqvist’s pull with a few strong shifts, but Tampa Bay came right back on a 3-on-2 shortly after killing a penalty to make it 5-1. Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Sergachev all came up the ice on a 3-on-2 after making a defensive stop. Sergachev received a pass from Kucherov at the blue line. The young defender fired a slap shot on net that Georgiev couldn’t glove down. The rebound went towards his left where Kucherov was. Rangers defender Marc Staal made a great stick check to deny Kucherov a goal, however, the puck bounced right onto Kucherov’s stick behind the net. Kucherov then passed it to Johnson—who was standing at the side of the net—where he shot it past Georgiev to make the difference four.
After 40 minutes the scoresheet read:
Tampa Bay 5
New York Rangers 1
Shots 36-19 in the Lightning’s favor.
Entering the third, there was a feeling the Rangers would come out stronger and for the first five minutes, it seemed as if that mentality had come true. Mats Zuccarello scored 3:23 into the third period on an odd-man rush to make it 5-2 and the Rangers defensive zone coverage began to limit Tampa Bay’s cross-zone passes and net-front presence.
Zuccarello’s goal seemed to light a fire under the Rangers a bit as they began to put pressure on the Lightning defense and created a few in-close chances on Vasilevskiy that were by no means “routine” saves.
Tampa Bay started to relax their forecheck and neutral zone pressure as the midway point of the third period approached. Holding onto a three-goal lead is a nice position to be in, however, it enabled the Rangers to generate an offensive presence they were unable to create earlier in the game. This led to the poor passes in the defensive zone which, in turn, led to scoring chances and an overall passive approach once the puck made it into the neutral zone.
The Rangers kept their pressure up and continued to force turnovers in the Lightning zone. It finally paid off for them when Rob O’Gara’s point shot was tipped by Kevin Hayes to make it 5-3 with a little over two minutes left in regulation. If the ice wasn’t tilted in the Rangers favor before that goal it most definitely was now. The Rangers pulled their goaltender and proceeded to fire away at Vasilevskiy.
Luckily, Vasilevskiy and the Lightning managed to thwart the last two minutes of pressure to secure the win—which was Vasilevskiy’s 40th of the season (tying him for the franchise record).
The first 40 minutes of this game was vintage Lightning hockey, while the final 20 minutes was more of the sloppy play we’ve seen a bit too often over the past 2 1⁄2 months. However, the Lightning shell-shocked the Rangers early and chased their starter out of the game. Those are positives, and even though the final period left much to be desired the Lightning still didn’t blow a lead.
That First Period
Wow. The first 20 minutes of this game was one of the most dominant I’ve seen Tampa Bay play. The Rangers didn’t record a shot until the 11th minute of the opening frame—coincedentally that shot was by Vladislav Namestnikov. Even after recording their first shot Tampa Bay continued to apply pressure on the forecheck and in the neutral zone. The Rangers couldn’t get down the ice without multiple Lightning players harassing them.
That was the kind of hockey the Lightning are capable of, and they managed to continue it into the second but began to relax their pressure a bit once they went up 3-0 on Cirelli’s goal.
Give me more of those first 20 minutes, please.
Sloppy 3rd Period
Yes, the Lightning entered the final period up 5-1 and firmly in control of the game. That doesn’t excuse the slopfest that permeated the third period. Bad passes that led to scoring chances, poor pinches, scrambling in the defensive zone—you name it and it probably occurred in some manner in the third period.
Tampa Bay could’ve kept the pressure on the Rangers and effectively closed the game out. Sure, it was to be expected that the Rangers would push back—they’re a proud team (and rightfully so). However, this Rangers team looked lost for most of the first 40 minutes of this game. Tampa took advantage of it for two periods and then lifted their foot off the gas. This team knows better than that. This team knows you can’t allow any team in the NHL to even sniff a chance at a comeback. Tuesday’s game against the Panthers is a vintage example of putting your foot on your opponent's throat.
You Tell Me
So, you guys came out in force on Tuesday’s recap (11 comments had me flabbergasted). In response, I want to see if we can keep that going. Let’s get a discussion going on in the recap’s comments. If this trend continues I might be inclined to just let the “Whatever” section be specifically for you guys.
Let me hear you!