One thing we know about the New York Rangers under coach Alain Vigneault is that they play their best hockey when their backs are against the wall. Last night in Amalie Arena in Tampa, facing elimination at the hands of the Lightning, the Rangers big guns came up huge in a wild third period, giving New York a convincing 7-3 victory, forcing Game 7 back at Madison Square Garden.
Rangers center Derick Brassard started a big night for both himself and his team by notching the first goal of the contest just 3:36 into the first, and defenseman Keith Yandle doubled-up the lead with a seeing-eye shot later in the period to make it 2-0 Rangers.
Before the end of the first, former Ranger captain Ryan Callahan finally broke through against his former allies-turned-nemeses with his first goal of the playoffs, beating netminder Henrik Lundqvist on a breakaway to halve the score, 2-1. However, it would be the only blemish against Lundqvist in the opening frame, as he made 15 saves, many of the spectacular variety, including stoning Steven Stamkos alone in front with the left pad.
After a rather uneventful middle frame that saw a few chances both ways, but no scoring and strong goaltending, the third period couldn’t have been more opposite, with a goal-scoring spree that ultimately decided the contest.
The opening goal of the third came on a breakdown after an odd-man rush, in which the Rangers had an outstanding chance on Ben Bishop. However, the Lightning weren’t able to recover the puck in front, nor was Bishop able to get back into position, and J.T. Miller eventually jumped at the chance, burying the puck amid the scramble for his first career playoff goal to make it 3-1. Linemates Brassard and Rick Nash picked up assists on the play, their third and second points of the night, respectively, but the trio wasn’t done yet.
After Rangers forward James Sheppard continued the run of players scoring their first of the post-season, on a play that could have been called back for both goaltender interference and kicking the puck, to make it 4-1, the Brassard-Nash-Miller line broke through again to completely blow the game open.
Nash raced down the left wing and made a strong power move before dropping the puck back to Miller, who found a wild open Brassard to the left of Bishop. Brassard made no mistake, snapping it past the lunging Lightning netminder to score his second of the night and increase the Rangers lead to four. Brassard’s goal capped a run of three Rangers goals on five shots in 4:12, forcing Bishop from the crease in favor of rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
However, Tampa Bay still had some fight left in them. Just 36 seconds later they responded, as a faceoff win by playoffs leading scorer Tyler Johnson went straight back to Nikita Kucherov, who ripped it past Lundqvist for his 8th of the playoffs, cutting the score to 5-2.
Unfortunately for the Lightning, any hope of a comeback was negated when defenseman Nikita Nesterov took a slashing penalty against Brassard, putting the Rangers on the power play, where Nash jumped at a rebound, eventually whacking it past Vasilievskiy to restore the four-goal cushion with 9:39 to go in the third.
Kucherov would add his second of the night, on a nice give-and-go with Johnson at 13:21 to make it 6-3, but that was the last of the offense the Lightning could muster. Brassard would record the hat trick with an empty netter, his third goal of the night elevating the 27-year-old into pretty lofty company in Rangers history, as he became the first Ranger to record a playoff hat trick since Wayne Gretzky, and the only the second Ranger, after Mark Messier, to record a hat trick in an elimination game.
Ultimately the game was a battle of the two teams’ stars, with New York coming out on top. Johnson and Kucherov both had good nights for the Lightning, and they now sit one-two, respectively, in both points and goals this post-season, but Stamkos was silenced for just the second time this series, as he skated to a -2 with only 2 shots on goal. Compounding their problems was Bishop, who seems to have completely fallen apart after a strong playoff campaign previously. He again couldn’t handle the New York attack, allowing five goals for the third time in the last four games.
Conversely, the Rangers top line of Brassard between Miller and Nash tallied an incredible 15 points combined, seemingly burying every chance they had. Combine that with a very solid night from Lundqvist, who recorded 36 saves and kept the Rangers in the game early when the Lightning had some great chances, and it’s not hard to see how New York was able to skate away with the 7-3 victory.
Game 7 goes Friday, May 29th at 8:00 p.m. ET, at MSG, with the Rangers looking to win their second game seven this post-season and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in three years. The Lightning will have to play their best game of the year and hope the back-and-forth nature of this series continues if they have any plans to make their first Cup Final appearance since 2004.