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Ondrej Palat’s late goal powers Lightning to win over the Rangers

For the firs time in three games the Tampa Bay Lightning looked like the defending Stanley Cup champions

New York Rangers v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Three Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

Down 2-0 in the game and 2-0 in the series to the New York Rangers, things did not look great for the Tampa Bay Lightning midway through the second period. Then their best players started playing like their best players. Power play goals from Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos tied it and, with time dwindling down in regulation, Ondrej Palat won it. Meanwhile Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 28 of 30 shots, allowing just power play goals to Mika Zibanajad and Chris Kreider. At the other end of the ice Igor Shesterkin stopped 48 of 51 (and posted a 1.54 GSAx) in the loss.

Coach Jon Cooper made a small tweak to the line-up, inserting Riley Nash and removing Cal Foote. Nash made his playoff debut for the Lightning and played just 5:29. Coach Cooper filled the fourth line ice time by double-shifting some of his top forwards like Kucherov.

After a sluggish start to the period by both teams the Lightning started to build up some sustained zone time, something they lacked in the first two games, but their shots went mostly wide of the net. A high-sticking penalty by Kucherov led to the Rangers first power play of the game. Yet, it seemed the Lightning picked up a bit of momentum from being short-handed. Nick Paul in particular was selling all out to get pucks out of the zone and down the ice.

Out of the box Kucherov was on the receiving end of a stretch pass from Ryan McDonagh. With a step on the defense, Kucherov was able to get a shot off, but Shesterkin was up to the challenge.

The best players on the ice for the first period were undoubtedly the goaltenders. Shesterkin was strong, as was Vasilevskiy as they stopped a combined 27 shots. Despite an overall strong period of play for the Lightning, there were still moments when they were hemmed in or failed to make simple plays. When that happened, Vasy was there to make the stops.

For one of the few periods of the series the Lightning swept the possession stats, as they were on the positive side of shot attempts (23-18), unblocked shot attempts (17-13), scoring chances (11-7), and expected goals (63.44%). Unfortunately, they weren’t able to lead in the most important stat - goals. The period came to an end as it begun, 0-0.

Special teams became a focus early in the second period when Ross Colton and Ryan Lindgren went off for matching minors. The Lightning went to a 4-on-3 power play (with four forwards) after Mika Zibanajad interfered with Alex Killorn. The Bolts were a little tentative with the advantage and didn’t really muster any dangerous chances. Not only that, they gave up the best chance. After two Rangers collided, it looked like Kucherov was going to have an open opportunity from a dangerous spot, but K’Andre Miller picked his pocket and started a 2-on-1 the other way. Only the friendly bounce of the iron kept the game scoreless.

That skater advantage for the Lightning evaporated when Corey Perry was sent off for a slash to the mask of Shesterkin (that the netminder made sure everyone saw). The penalty led to the rare 3-on-3 in regulation for a few seconds.

Zibanajad’s penalty ended and he immediately went to his standard position at the top of the left circle. He fired his first shot wide, but his second attempt was on the money and in the back of the net. All of the Lightning’s hard work early was for naught as the Rangers took the lead, 1-0.

Mika Zibanajad (Adam Fox, Artemi Panarin) Power Play, 1-0 Rangers

Not content to give up just one power play goal in the period, the Lightning were back shorthanded shortly after as Riley Nash bumped Shesterkin and was called for goaltender interference. Vasy stopped Zibanajad’s one-timer this time, but the rebound came to Chris Krieder in front of the net and he popped it home for a 2-0 lead. Give Nash credit, despite his low playing time it looked like he might have a major effect on the game.

Chris Kreider (Mika Zibanajad, Artemi Panarin) Power Play, 2-0 Rangers

The Rangers looked to be having so much fun scoring on the power play, the Lightning tried it themselves. Jacob Trouba went off the ice and the Lightning were given some room to move the puck around the zone. Victor Hedman set up Kucherov and the enigmatic winger scuffed his shot along the ice and under Shesterkin. Hey, hey it’s a game!

Nikita Kucherov (Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos) Power Play, 2-1 Rangers

The rest of the period was played at regular ol’ boring 5-on-5 and neither team was able to score as both goaltenders went back to stopping the shots thrown their way. Another decent period at even strength for the Lightning, but their inability to stop the Rangers power play put them at a 2-1 deficit with 20 minutes to go. If they weren’t able to overcome it, their season would be all but over.

The first part of the period broke well for the Bolts. Early pressure led to a power play and Steven Stamkos found the back of the net. Kudos to Corey Perry for spying him entering the zone and putting the puck on his stick.

Steven Stamkos (Corey Perry, Nikita Kucherov) Power Play, 2-2

More pressure from the Lightning led to another power play. The Bolts don’t capitalize on this one despite spending the bulk of the two minutes in the zone. Old friend Barclay Goodrow was felled by a 98-MPH shot from Hedman, but the Rangers held the line.

Sacrificing a counter-rush goal would have been brutal with the way the Lightning controlled play, which they didn’t. So would a four-minute high-stick penalty, which the Lightning did. After whiffing on a one-timer, Kucherov got his stick high up on Zibanajad and drew a little blood. Not ideal.

One way to shorten that time is to draw a penalty of their own. Alex Killorn had a little daylight on a rush and Jacob Trouba tripped him up (also clipped Pierre-Edouard Bellemare with an elbow that went uncalled). No one found glory with fewer players on the ice and the game marched on, tied at two goals a piece.

The Rangers had a chance to put their stamp on the series with a strong third period. Up a goal they generated just 6 third-period shot attempts at 5v5 and allowed the Lightning. Still, it looked like things would go to overtime. Play had stabilized and as the clock dwindled down to a minute the high-danger chances seemed to be done for regulation. Then the Lightning’s top line entered the zone and a Hedman pass to the center of the ice was deftly nudged to Ondrej Palat by Kucherov. Palat found a space between the post and Shesterkin’s glove. The puck found some room in the back of the net and Amalie Arena exploded.

Ondrej Palat (Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman) 3-2 Lightning

With the win, the Lightning back themselves off of the ledge just a little bit. However, as Coach Cooper is fond of saying, “it’s just one game”. They haven’t won the series yet. They have to go out in Game Four and do the same thing just to claw their way back to even. There is still no room for comfort, but maybe there is a little doubt in the back of the Rangers’ minds now.