The two-time defending champions aren’t dead yet — and the Tampa Bay Lightning left it to the very end to ensure that the Eastern Conference Final wouldn’t be a cakewalk for the New York Rangers.
With 41.6 seconds to go in regulation, Ondrej Palat snuck home the game-winner to defeat the Rangers 3-2 in Game 3 of the conference final to halve its deficit to 2-games-to-1 on Sunday afternoon at Amalie Arena.
The veteran’s one-timer, which came from the right face-off dot from a nifty backhanded dish from Nikita Kucherov, capped off a furious Lightning comeback which saw them trail 2-0 in the second period.
It was the only 5-on-5 goal of the night, too, as Tampa did just enough to finally beat Rangers goalie Igor Sheseterkin, who faced 51 shots.
New York struck twice in succession on the man-advantage in the second period before the Lightning nabbed power-play goals midway through the second and early in the third period to set the comeback in motion.
It also helped that Andrei Vasilevskiy held up his end of the bargain when it came to this series being a goaltending duel for the ages, stopping 28 of 30 shots in the win.
Neither goal was breached on 27 combined shots in the opening 20 minutes — Shesterkin most notably making a breakaway stop on Kucherov while Vasilevskiy made a superb triple save with the Rangers bearing down on his crease.
The second period turned into a carousel of penalties that ultimately greased the wheels needed to ignite some offense.
Following corresponding calls on Ross Colton and Ryan Lindgren to make it a 4-on-4 game, Mika Zibanejad recorded just his second-ever postseason penalty to put Tampa on a 4-on-3 advantage.
While Tampa couldn’t do a thing with 1:32 of the power play, Corey Perry put New York back on level terms after his stick got up high on Shesterkin, prompting the goalie to fall back and throw his stick up high in anguish to help sell the penalty.
Just 59 seconds later, Zibanejad was out of the box and putting the Rangers in front on the power play when he fired a one-timer from Adam Fox from above the right circle above Vasilevskiy blocker side at the 7:37 mark of the period.
Riley Nash put the Rangers right back on the man advantage when he collided with Shesterkin for the goalie-interference infraction.
At the 9:44 mark, Chris Kreider doubled New York’s advantage when a similar set-up saw Zibanejad one-time an attempt that was turned away by Vasilevskiy. But Kreider did what he does best in using his domineering net-front presence to clean up the rebound.
With those two power-play tallies, the Rangers’ man-advantage unit was converting at a 40% clip dating back to Game 3 of the second round against the Carolina Hurricanes.
They managed to do this without Ryan Strome, who suffered a lower-body injury on an unassuming hit early in the second period. While he returned momentarily during the second to test things out, the team announced midway through the third that he would not return.
The Lightning found an answer just 1:06 after Kreider’s goal when Kucherov fired home a one-timer through the paraphernalia of Shesterkin on the power play prompted by a Jacob Trouba interference penalty.
The very same Rangers defenseman gave the Lightning another power play just 37 seconds into the third period — and the hosts took advantage once again.
Just like he did in Game 1, Steven Stamkos slapped a blistering one-timer over the shoulder of Shesterkin just 45 seconds after Trouba’s penalty.
Frank Vatrano took a page out of Tampa’s book by running Vasilevskiy, giving Tampa another power-play 6:27 into the third.
This time, however, the Rangers penalty kill stood firm, though it came with Goodrow blocking a 98-mph shot from Victor Hedman that stunned the bottom-six forward. He managed to return to the game just moments later.
Kucherov gave the Rangers a golden chance to regain the lead when he high-sticked Zibanejad and drew blood, good for a four-minute double minor. But two of those minutes were wiped out when Trouba committed his third penalty of the afternoon — a trip on Alex Killorn 1:33 into the advantage.