TAMPA, Fla. – Just when it appeared the New York Rangers might be ready to push Tampa Bay to the brink of elimination, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning showed they were nowhere near finished.
Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos scored to wipe out a two-goal deficit, and Ondrej Palat finished a dramatic comeback with the 10th winning playoff goal of his career Sunday in a 3-2 victory that cut the Rangers' lead in the Eastern Conference final to 2-1.
“We’ve been in spots like this," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “A big thing for us was, we felt we had a recipe, we just had to stay with it. I think there were times in the series where we’ve tried to manufacture things that weren’t there that put us on our heels, gave up opportunities. Whether it was a break, whatever it was, we weren’t in sync.”
Palat scored with 42 seconds left, off a nifty back pass from Kucherov, to cap a rally that began after Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider scored power-play goals in a span of just over two minutes to put the Rangers up 2-0 in the second period.
Facing the prospect of falling behind 3-0 in a series that began with a pair of losses on the road, the Lightning fought back with Kucherov scoring on the power play in the second period and Stamkos blistering a shot past goalie Igor Shesterkin from the left circle early in the third.
“We were down 2-0, and I don’t want to sit here and say we didn’t deserve to be down 2-0 because their power play has been great. .... But our 5-on-5 game I liked, and so we just needed to stick with that and stay out of the box," Cooper said.
“I think in maybe years past — three, four years ago — maybe panic would’ve set in at some point, but not with this group. The power play got us going, and then we took off from there. But no question the ‘been there before’ has really helped our mindset in games.”
Kucherov had a goal and two assists.
Stamkos had a multi-point game, too, with a goal and an assist. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 28 shots after being outplayed by Shesterkin in Games 1 and 2.
“They were the better team tonight overall," Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. "It went right down to the wire and had a chance to win late. ... Disappointing ,but we’ll move on and get ready for the next one.”
Game 4 is Tuesday night, with Tampa Bay looking to even the best-of-seven series and New York still in a position to move within one victory of its first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 2014.
Artemi Panarin had two assists for the Rangers, and Adam Fox and Zibanejad had primary helpers on power-play goals resulting from a pair of penalties drawn by Shesterkin in the second period.
Tampa Bay’s Corey Perry was whistled for slashing on the first, and Riley Nash went to penalty box for interference before Kreider’s goal made it 2-0 midway through the period.
Despite taking some costly penalties that helped the Lightning get back in the game, and ultimately being unable to hold on to the lead, Gallant didn't feel as though the Rangers let the game slip away.
“No, I didn’t sense that. Honestly. It was 2-0, there was a lot of hockey game left and they were playing well," the New York coach said. “They were jumping. They were forcing us to make mistakes that we didn’t make in the prior two games. ... I wouldn’t say we let it get away because they played really well. But we could have stolen it tonight and been up 3-0.”
Cooper cited poor puck management and the lack of a sense of urgency as factors in Tampa Bay starting the series slowly following a nine-day layoff the defending champs earned with a second-round sweep of the Presidents Trophy-winning Florida Panthers.
Neither of those were problems once the Lightning fell behind by two goals Sunday.
Shesterkin finished with 48 saves, but the Rangers wasted an opportunity to regain control of the game when Kucherov drew a four-minute penalty for high-sticking Zibanejad with just over nine minutes left.
In fact, New York lost the man-advantage when Jacob Trouba subsequently was penalized for tripping Tampa Bay’s Alex Killorn.
Shesterkin made save after save to keep the Rangers from falling behind, but couldn’t get his glove up high enough to stop Palat’s winner.
“The third period for us just wasn’t good enough,” Fox said. "We were on our heels the whole time. Eventually they’re going to get one, and they did.”
Tampa Bay, which hadn’t lost consecutive playoff games in three years before dropping Games 1 and 2 at Madison Square Garden, rallied from a 3-2 deficit to win its first-round series against Toronto in seven games.
NOTES: Lightning Brayden Point missed his sixth consecutive game with a lower body injury. He hasn’t played since leaving the lineup during Tampa Bay’s Game 7 victory over Toronto in the first round. ... Rangers forward Ryan Strome left with an early injury, winding up playing a little more than seven minutes. ... The Rangers lost to the Lightning for the first time this season. They entered Sunday 5-0 against the defending champ, with three of the wins coming during the regular season. ... New York is 8-1 at home during the playoffs compared to 2-6 on the road.
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