NEW YORK — The New York Rangers spent the first two playoff rounds pulling off numerous comebacks. Now they are enjoying the chance to play with a series lead against an opponent that rarely experiences a postseason losing streak.
Mika Zibanejad scored 81 seconds into the third period and the Rangers rallied from an early deficit for a 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night to take a two-games-to-none lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Rangers have control of the best-of-seven series, a new experience for them this postseason. They rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round, then overcame series deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 to eliminate the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.
“We heard all year that (we weren’t) going to have playoff success,” said New York defenseman Adam Fox, who had two assists. “We’ve said it all year: The belief in the room is high. The outside opinion doesn’t really affect anyone.”
The series shifts to Tampa for Game 3 on Sunday afternoon, and the Lightning are 4-1 at home in the postseason.
The Rangers handed Tampa Bay consecutive postseason losses for the first time since getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019 first round.
Since then, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning had been 17-0 in the postseason following a loss, a stretch that began in the expanded 2020 playoffs in the Toronto bubble.
“We’re not thinking about what streaks teams have or how they’ve done earlier right now,” Fox said. “We’re just trying to bring it day in and day out, and the guys in (the) room believe in each other.”
Zibanejad scored in his sixth straight home game two seconds after a turnover by Tampa Bay star Nikita Kucherov.
After Kucherov’s giveaway to Chris Kreider near the neutral zone, Fox spotted Zibanejad streaking down the left side and quickly moved the puck. After getting the pass, Zibanejad ripped a shot from above the left faceoff circle that sailed over goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy’s stick.
Youngsters K’Andre Miller and Kaapo Kakko scored for the Rangers, who extended their team record with their eighth straight postseason home win.
“It’s a huge win for us,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. “We just get ready for the next one. It’s in the past, it’s behind us. We know what we’re doing, playing a real good team like that in Tampa. To play the way we played the last two games, that’s the way we’re going to have to play to win the series.”
Kucherov scored an early power-play goal to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead. Nicholas Paul scored the Lightning’s final goal, when Tampa Bay had an extra attacker with 2:02 remaining while down 3-1.
“We haven’t executed the … proper way that has got us here especially the last couple of years in terms of puck management and execution,” Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said.
New York goalie Igor Shesterkin made 29 saves to improve to 9-3 in his past 12 games since getting pulled in Game 4 of the first round in Pittsburgh. He capped his latest win by making glove saves on Kucherov and Steven Stamkos in the final minute.
“We needed those big saves at the end, and we got them as usual,” Fox said.
Vasilevskiy stopped 25 shots.
Tampa Bay went ahead 2:41 into the game, shortly after Patrick Maroon drew a slashing penalty on New York’s Ryan Reaves. Kucherov flew down the left side and flicked a wrist shot from the left circle that went over Shesterkin’s glove as the goalie was screened by Corey Perry.
It took the Rangers less than 3 1/2 minutes to even the game when Miller scored his second of the postseason. His initial attempt was blocked by Brandon Hagel, but he quickly regained possession and put a wrist shot past Vasilevskiy’s glove.
New York took a 2-1 lead late in the first when Kakko slipped past Stamkos and Hedman to the right side of the crease, waited for a pass from Fox and flipped the puck into the net for his second of the postseason.
After Zibanejad scored, Paul made it a one-goal game by slipping the puck over Shesterkin’s stick into the right side of the net after receiving a pass from Perry.
–Larry Fleisher, Field Level Media