TAMPA, Florida. — The last time the Rangers were here, Kaapo Kakko watched Game 6 of the conference finals in street clothes after being ruled a healthy scratch.
This time, his twin Alexis Lafreniere met the same fate with the ping pong ball for Thursday’s game against the Lightning here.
Both games ended 2-1 in favor of Tampa Bay. But while last spring signaled the end of the 2021-22 season, this shootout loss gives the Rangers a dose of optimism as they turn the corner to 2023.
The Blue Shirts certainly put the stink behind Tuesday’s 4-0 defeat to the capital as quickly as possible. They played intense, hungry hockey Thursday in a wildly entertaining game that was up-and-down, back-and-forth and never seemed to stop until Andrei Vasilevskiy’s sixth-round save on an Adam Fox backhand signaled its end. :
If these were the real Rangers, everything would be fine.
“This is the game we have to play,” Jacob Truba said. “There was high intensity and physicality. If we play like that and lose, we can live with it.
“It was a fun game to be a part of.”
Igor Shesterkin and Vasilevskiy were both brilliant, making 40 and 46 shots, respectively, while Tampa Bay had two shots and the Rangers scored once. According to NaturalStatTrick, the Lightning created 43 scoring chances to the Rangers’ 29, holding a 22-11 advantage in high-danger moments. Those were season highs against the Blueshirts in a contest in which the pucks were almost never in the neutral zone.
“Everybody was more aggressive,” said Mika Zibanejad, who snapped an eight-game scoreless streak by beating Wasilewski from inside the right circle for a 1-0 lead at 12:45 of the first period. “That’s how we want to play.”
The blue shirts attacked the lead. Tampa Bay counterattacked. Exchanges of odd-man rushes ensued. The Rangers created three turnovers and two-on-ones, none of which they scored on. The Lightning continued to jam and pound the net until finally tying the score when Braden Point’s backdoor left-porch redirection of a Steven Stamkos pass bounced off Shesterkin’s spinning pads at 5:32 of the third period.
“Every time we play, they bring out the best in us,” said Barkley Goodrow, who of course earned back-to-back bowl rings with the Lightning. “We competed and fought as hard as we could.
“I think we’re pretty complacent. We knew that Washington’s game was unacceptable. I don’t think anyone needed to tell us that. We know how to play. This was a lot more like it.”
The transformation of line combinations had its desired effect. The fledgling Julien Gauthier-Philippe Chytil-Vitali Kravtsov unit was quite dynamic throughout with a 68.60 xGF pct. 9:37, sending eight of 11 shots on net.
Gauthier made several jump shots toward the net that were denied. Kravtsov had his most physically demanding match of the year, getting into fights and trying to get inside on a night when he pinned Victor Hedman in the first round. Chytil was dangerous throughout, testing Wasilewski on several occasions.
The reunited Kakko-Zibanejad-Chris Kreider unit, untouched through the opening 13 games of the season while operating as a possession machine with a 60.90 Corsi and 64.48 xGF, did its thing below the hash marks.
Indeed, it was Kakko’s work behind the goal line that set up Zibanejad’s goal, the No. 93’s first five-on-one in a dozen games. Kreider had his most impressive game in weeks, hitting six of 10 shots on net.
Vincent Trocheck, again centering Panarin on one side with Goodrow on the other, struck out six. Panarin, who missed several open nets on the power play in overtime, made four of nine attempts.
The power play looked simpler and produced better looks that included a half-dozen glorious chances, but still finished 0-for-3, extending the miserable streak to 1-for-16 over the last four contests. It was better though.
The Rangers are in the thick of the fight for a playoff spot where every point counts. Getting one rather than two won’t cut it. But the team’s performance tonight and Tuesday’s rebound effect overshadowed the one-point loss.
Gerard Gallant called the 3-1 win over Tampa Bay at the Garden his best game of the year. This, he said, was second best.
The Rangers will need a lot of third-best players the rest of the way.