After being thoroughly outplayed by the Rangers and losing the first two games of their Eastern Conference finals series, the Tampa Bay Lightning looked like a team being swamped by a younger version of itself.
But it would have been naïve to think the Lightning, winners of the past two Stanley Cups, would quietly go away. The team is stacked with stars like center Steven Stamkos and features battle-hardened veterans, including defenseman Victor Hedman and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has led the N.H.L. in regular-season wins each of the past five years.
Back in Tampa, Fla., trailing the series two games to none, the Lightning were the more aggressive and faster team in Game 3. On Sunday, they beat the Rangers, 3-2, outshooting the Rangers by 51-30, erasing a two-goal deficit and breathing life into their attempt to win another Stanley Cup.
Ondrej Palat, who has scored the second-most playoff goals in Lightning history, buried the game-winner with 42 seconds left, taking a nifty pass from Nikita Kucherov and firing it past Igor Shesterkin’s gloved left hand.
The Lightning were clearly more energized playing in front of their fans, with their talented wingers racing past the Rangers and Vasilevskiy looking far sharper than he did in New York.
“We love to play here and hopefully we’re going to win the next game, too,” Palat said in a television interview after the game.
Having blown a two-goal lead on the road, the Rangers were exasperated. Chris Kreider, the only player left from the Rangers’ last appearance in the conference finals, in 2015, took responsibility for the Lightning’s game-winner, saying he was out of position and missed a chance to block the shot and had to clear the zone. “I was puck-watching,” he said in a postgame news conference.
The Lightning began the game by pinning the Rangers in their zone for extended stretches, and they did not give the puck away as much as they did at Madison Square Garden. Vasilevskiy made three quick saves on the Rangers in the first period, all with his left pad, to keep the Rangers off the scoreboard, and Tampa Bay neutralized the Rangers’ top line of Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Frank Vatrano.
But the Rangers withstood the Lightning’s onslaught thanks to Shesterkin, who stopped all 15 of the Lightning’s shots on goal, including a breakaway by Kucherov, who had sprinted out of the penalty box and taken a long pass from defenseman Ryan McDonagh before having his shot kicked aside.
After a scoreless first period, the teams traded penalties. Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren and Lightning forward Ross Colton were both sent off after a scuffle behind the Rangers’ net. But just 15 seconds into four-on-four play, Zibanejad committed an interference penalty, giving Tampa Bay a four-on-three advantage.
The Rangers ended up with the best scoring chance when defenseman K’Andre Miller stole the puck from Kucherov and raced up the ice with his teammate Barclay Goodrow, who hit the far post.
Then the Lightning, who had minimized the mistakes that hurt them in the first two games, made two self-inflicted errors. Corey Perry was sent off for slashing after he hit Shesterkin’s face mask with his stick, erasing Tampa’s power play. The Rangers, who failed to score on their four power plays in Game 2 and were disorganized on their odd-man advantage in the first period, looked sharper.
Artemi Panarin and then Adam Fox made cross-ice passes to Zibanejad, who buried a 94-mile-per-hour one-timer past Vasilevskiy’s right side with 12:23 left in the period. It was Zibanejad’s 10th goal of the playoffs and his sixth on the power play, tying a single-postseason team record set by Adam Graves in 1996.
Less than a minute later, the Lightning’s Riley Nash ran into Shesterkin and was called for goalie interference, putting the Rangers right back on the power play. Again, Panarin found Zibanejad in almost the same spot to Vasilevskiy’s right, and, though Zibanejad’s shot was stopped this time, Kreider tipped in the rebound for his 10th goal of the playoffs.
In danger of letting the game — and the series — spin out of control, the Lightning needed to respond, and quickly. They got their chance about 30 seconds later when Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba was called for interference.
After an exchange of passes with Stamkos, Kucherov took a pass from Hedman and fired a low shot from the right circle that went through Shesterkin’s pads.
The three goals in 3:13 changed the complexion of the game as both teams played looser and with more urgency.
Less than a minute into the third period, the Rangers were on their heels and Trouba was called for holding. Tampa Bay responded. Perry skated deep into the Rangers’ zone and passed cross ice to Stamkos, who fired a shot that hit Shesterkin’s left shoulder and the crossbar before landing in the net to tie the game, 2-2.
The Lightning got another chance after Vatrano ran into Vasilevskiy on a breakaway and was sent off for goaltender interference, even though he had been pushed by McDonagh.
The Rangers survived the pressure from Tampa Bay, which attempted eight shots. Goodrow, who played with the Lightning the past two seasons before signing with New York in the off-season, stopped one of them with his left ankle and limped off the ice.
After a turnover, Zibanejad skated up the ice but was caught in the face with Kucherov’s stick. Kucherov was given a four-minute double minor for high sticking. The Rangers, though, squandered the advantage when Trouba pulled down Alex Killorn on a breakaway and was called for his third penalty of the game.
It was the first time in six chances this season that the Lightning beat the Rangers, and the victory couldn’t have come at a better time for them. The Lightning probably knew that teams have come back from three-game deficits only four times in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That statistic will remain unchallenged, but the Lightning still trail the Rangers, two games to one, heading into Game 4 on Tuesday in Tampa.