TAMPA BAY — With a two-goal lead and a chance to take a 3-0 series lead, the Rangers let the opportunity slip through their fingers.
Give credit to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The two-time defending champions refused to go down easy, rallying for a 3-2 win in Game 3 of Sunday’s Eastern Conference Finals at Amalie Arena.
Ondrej Palat scored the winner with 41.6 seconds left to wrap up a 51-shot effort from the champions, who were relentless in their effort to cut their series deficit to 2-1.
The first period lived up to the hype that surrounded both goalies entering the series.
Igor Shesterkin continued his streak with 15 saves in the first 20 minutes, but Andrei Vasilevskiy managed to match him after allowing nine goals in the first two games in New York.
The Lightning keeper made 12 first-period saves to keep the game scoreless, including three during a six-second span as Rangers’ fourth line of Tyler Motte, Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Reaves swarmed the crease.
But a first period that was mostly played five-on-five gave way to a second period that featured six penalties, including three for each team.
That opened the door for Rangers’ dangerous power play, which converted two of their three chances.
The first came courtesy of Mika Zibanejad, who unleashed one of his patented point shots on a wire from Adam Fox to make it 1-0 at 7:37. This temporarily gave him the team lead with 10 playoff goals, including six on the power play.
But Kreider would equal it just over two minutes later. Zibanejad set it up with another point shot, and while Vasilevskiy made the save this time, the No.20 was there to clean up the rebound.
It gave Kreider 10 goals in those playoffs and 34 for his career, tying him with Rod Gilbert for first in franchise history.
The two-goal lead put Rangers on the precipice of a 3-0 series lead, but the two-time defending champions would not crumble so easily.
Barely 1:06 after Kreider’s goal, the Lightning connected on a power play on their lineup. Nikita Kucherov, who had been frustrated by Shesterkin countless times in the first seven periods of the series, finally got past him with a one-timer that was set up by Victor Hedman.
That cut the deficit to 2-1, with another power-play goal tying the score early in the third period. This one came from Steven Stamkos, who unloaded a one-timer from a similar spot to Zibanejad.
Tampa’s two PP goals came from penalties on Jacob Trouba, who was called for three overall.
Before the goal race, Rangers lost center Ryan Strome after a Palat push awkwardly bent his right leg early in the second period. He was ruled out for the rest of the game with what the team described as a lower body injury.
This forced them to play the remainder of Game 3 with 11 forwards, with that number briefly reduced to 10 after Barclay Goodrow blocked a Victor Hedman slap shot and disappeared into the locker room. He broke his left ankle blocking a shot in Rangers’ first-ever playoff game on May 3 and missed nearly a month, but returned after just minutes this time.
Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Learn more about his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.