Rangers vs. Lightning: Dominating Win Puts New York Ahead in Eastern Conference Final

The major headline heading into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final was whether or not the Rangers could find a way to solve Andrei Vasilevskiy. While it is worth tempering expectations because it is only one game...wow. The Rangers didn’t waste any time putting that narrative to bed early on as they deposited six goals behind Tampa Bay’s backbone. Meanwhile at the other end of the ice, Igor Shesterkin did all he needed to do and kept the Rangers alive long enough to get the goal scoring flowing.

1st Period

With the Rangers only having a day off in between games, everyone expected the Lightning to come out early with their fresh legs. However, that ended up being far from what occurred as New York’s top line caught an early break in the offensive zone.

A great set play by the Rangers through the neutral baited Ryan McDonagh into an early pinch at the red line. Frank Vatrano’s deflection landed in a perfect spot for Mika Zibanejad to win a foot race and create a 2-on-1 chance down low. Zibanejad sold the entire building with a fake slap shot and Zach Bogosian fell right into the trap by attacking the puck carrier. That left Chris Kreider wide open in front of the net, and allowed Zibanejad to make the easy pass out front to his linemate. Kreider stepped into the shot with plenty of space, and beat Andrei Vasilevskiy under the right arm to give the Rangers a very early lead.

While the early lead was great to get ahold of, the Rangers came crashing back to reality a few minutes later as Tampa Bay tied up the game. Extended zone time by the Lightning led to a tired group of Rangers being stuck on the ice, and the defending Cup Champions took full advantage. Jan Rutta was able to setup Steven Stamkos above the faceoff circles after faking a shot, and the Tampa Bay captain didn’t miss. A perfectly placed one-timer sailed right over the shoulder of Igor Shesterkin, and suddenly the game was tied at 1-1.

2nd Period

While giving up the early momentum was a hard pill to swallow for the Rangers, they caught a break early in the second period. After bobbling the initial zone entry, Frank Vatrano was able to stick with the play, and forced a turnover after reaching back for the puck. The Lightning were caught backing up too far into their zone, and that allowed plenty of space up high for Vatrano to find a shooting lane.

Vatrano stunned every single person in the building with a heavy wrist shot from 35-feet out, and somehow put the puck under the crossbar. Andrei Vasilevskiy clearly wasn’t expecting the puck to come off of Vatrano’s stick as quickly as it did, and the second goal of the night sent Madison Square Garden into a frenzy.

Under a minute later, the Lightning showed why they are defending Champions and stormed right back down the ice to tie the game. The Rangers actually had relatively good coverage on the initial zone entry, but a quick seam pass by Ondrej Palat opened up enough space to cause some damage. K’Andre Miller immediately closed down the lane on Steven Stamkos, by Stamkos was able to spin off of the check and put the puck towards the goal.

Again, the Rangers had enough bodies in front of the net to outnumber the Lightning, but Palat found the lane and jumped on the rebound. Igor Shesterkin did a great job of turning aside the initial shot on goal, and was inches away from getting apiece of the rebound to keep it out of the net.

Surrendering the lead for the second time of the evening clearly lit a fire under the Kid Line, and they showed Tampa Bay why they are going to be a handful. The trio of Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, and Alexis Lafrenière established control down below the goal line, and went to work from behind the net. Kaapo Kakko received a pass down low from Chytil, and for some reason the Lightning let him sit behind the net without any pressure.

Kakko displayed his creativity with the puck as he made a shifty move towards the goal line, and placed a perfect pass on the tape of Chytil. Vasilevskiy barely had any time to see what was developing in front of him, and Chytil wired his sixth goal of the playoffs to reestablish the lead for New York.

Oh, you thought they were done? Nope.

Just over five minutes after giving the Rangers the lead, the Kid Line went to work once again and pinned the Lightning in their own zone for well over a minute. The constant pressure tired out the group of Lightning on the ice, and just as it looked like they were going to get a clear, Adam Fox made a leaping play at the blue line.

The puck moved across the ice to K’Andre Miller, who sidestepped Steven Stamkos and found a wide open passing lane across the ice. Filip Chytil was practically waiving his hands in the air with how open he was, and the 22-year old put home his second goal of the night. Filip Chytil’s dominance, and the Kid Line as a whole has given the Rangers an entirely new dimension, and is proving to be a problem for opposing teams thus far.

3rd Period

The Rangers carried over all the momentum they generated from their three-goal second period, and turned it into yet another early goal. A fortunate bounce in the neutral zone created a partial 2-on-1 rush into the offensive zone. Andrew Copp was able to settle the puck as he crossed over the blue line, and shoveled a quick pass back against his momentum. Artemiy Panarin skated onto the pass, and absolutely wired a wrist shot over the shoulder over Vasilevskiy.

A little under six minutes later, the Lightning handed the Rangers another opportunity as Alex Killorn was sent off for a holding minor. New York had plenty of zone time with their first power play unit on the ice, and they prevented Tampa Bay from making a change to their penalty killers. The puck was worked around at the top of the umbrella before Artemiy Panarin eventually found the open lane he was looking for.

Mika Zibanejad was setup in his office inside the left faceoff circle, and absolutely bombed a half slap shot under the crossbar. The Rangers had been feeding Zibanejad the entire power play from the same exact spot, and the third time was clearly the charm. Zibanejad’s eighth goal of the playoffs all but wrapped up the scoring at the Garden, and gave the Rangers a four-goal lead with 14 minutes remaining in the game.

It is still a very long series, but the fact the Rangers took care of business in Game 1 and dominated was extremely encouraging. Yes, the Lightning were clearly rusty after their extended break, but the Rangers did what good teams do and made the most of the advantage. That being said, the Rangers will have an opportunity to extend their lead as Game 2 returns to MSG on Friday night.

Why. Not. Us?