3 Lightning Players Leading the Series Turnaround vs. Rangers

With the 4-1 win on June 7, the Tampa Bay Lightning have tied the Eastern Conference Final at two games apiece. After going down 2-0 in the series, the Lightning have completely turned it around and head to New York City Thursday with all the momentum. Tuesday night featured a patented performance by the Lightning, as they looked like the team fans are accustomed to seeing in the playoffs. They swarmed the New York Rangers, giving them no room to breathe offensively, while getting offensive contributions from up and down the lineup themselves.

Andrei Vasilevskiy and Mikhail Sergachev of the Tampa Bay Lightning defend as Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers follows the play (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

The performance was deja vu to the second round against the Florida Panthers, where they just wore the Panthers down, making life difficult for them. The style of play is different from what we’ve seen from the other teams left in this year’s playoffs. For instance, the Western Conference Final featured two teams with a more “run and gun” style, with goals coming at a premium. While that style has worked for the Colorado Avalanche so far, the Lightning’s precedent with their style of play is undeniable. With the Lightning firing on all cylinders after Game 4, let’s take a look at some players who have picked up their play these last two games.

Nikita Kucherov

The team’s most electrifying player has led the team offensively these past two contests. It’s clear that the Lightning offense goes as Kucherov goes, and he’s been on fire these past two games. With four points in the two wins, he continues to pace the Lightning offense. Often times he can get into trouble trying to be too creative, causing bad turnovers. This then leads him to go unnoticeable for short periods of time, as he’s not the greatest player in his own zone.

On the broadcast, during Game 4 they mentioned how head coach Jon Cooper says that there’s a balance with coaching him, as he doesn’t want to limit the creative genius Kucherov is with the puck, while also trying to limit the turnovers that that genius can sometimes cause. These last two games, though, fans have seen why he’s one of the best creative passers in our game. For example, in Game 3 he made the gutsy, no-look pass to Ondrej Palat for the game-winning goal with less than a minute left.

Nikita Kucherov Tampa Bay Lightning
Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Aside from the passing, he’s also found scoring lanes in the two wins. In Game 3, he scored on a one-time power-play goal to get the Lightning on the board. When him and Steven Stamkos are getting teed up on the half-wall like that, the power play can be difficult to defend. However, when they can go back and forth with that seam pass through a team’s penalty kill, they’re nearly unstoppable.

In Game 4, Kucherov found the back of the net on a neutral zone stretch pass from Palat. An example of something that Kucherov is one of the best in the world at — spacing and timing. Being a good goalscorer is not always about having the hardest shot or having the best stickhandling ability. Being able to create, find, and understand spacing is integral to scoring goals. Timing that spacing in the windows of time the other team is vulnerable is even more important. Kucherov has been fantastic at this, an enormous reason for him leading the Lightning franchise in playoff goals (from ‘Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov reaches 50 postseason goals’, Tampa Bay Times, 6/5/22). The breakaway goal he scored Tuesday night is just an example of that ability, and a big reason the Lightning have been able to flip this series upside down.

Ondrej Palat

Palat is one of the most underrated pieces to the success of the Lightning over the last couple of years. Second all-time in Lightning franchise history for playoff goals, he’s been a machine these last two games. With three points in Game 4 and the game-winning goal in Game 3, he’s stepped up his game to get the Lightning back on track.

Radko Gudas, Ondrej Palat
Tampa Bay Lightning’s Ondrej Palat and Philadelphia Flyers’ Radko Gudas (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Often the forgotten member of the Lightning first line, Palat is someone every team would want on their roster come playoff time. He’s great in his own zone, is strong on the puck, can play on a top power-play unit, and has a knack for scoring goals in big spots. His goal in the final minute of Game 3 saved the Lightning’s season. With the way the Lightning were taking it to the Rangers in the second half of Game 3, the game going to overtime would have been tough to swallow for the Lightning. His goal gave the team something to show for their efforts, and prevented overtime, where anything could’ve happened.

Related: Lightning Fans Should Be Prepared for a Future Without Ondrej Palat

He was one of the best players on the ice in Game 4. Making the stretch pass to Kucherov on his goal, and winning a battle in the corner to get the shot on net that allowed Stamkos to knock in the rebound, he was getting it done in more ways than one. Making plays in all three zones, he had his fingerprints all over this game, once again proving his value on that top line with Kucherov and Stamkos. His play will continue to be a big factor in the Lightning’s ability to survive the rest of the series.

Andrei Vasilevskiy

The goaltending matchup between Vasilevskiy and Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin was one of the biggest storylines going into the series. Through the first two games, Shesterkin was clearly the better goaltender. After allowing nine goals in the first two games of the series and ending his streak of winning playoff games off a loss, many were quick to criticize Vasilevskiy. However, these past two games we’ve seen him back in form.

Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Allowing just three goals in the last two games, he’s posted a .953 save percentage (SV%) and a 1.50 goals-against average (GAA) in the wins. While the defense has been much better in front of him, his play has been a security blanket for the team. When he’s playing like he has the last two games, the Lightning are a much better team regardless of other factors.

While his play has increased, the argument could be made that Shesterkin has still been better. The Rangers’ netminder nearly stole Game 3 for his team, stopping 49 shots in the loss. Even in Game 4, the Lightning offense came out with its hair on fire and Shesterkin was able to stop numerous scoring chances to keep the game at just 1-0 after the first period. Regardless, Vasilevskiy has recovered from his shaky start, another contributing factor to the success we’ve seen from the Lightning these last two games.

These three are just standouts of an entire roster that has flipped its play from the first two games of the series. If the Lightning can continue their momentum from the last two games the Rangers are in trouble. If the three players mentioned above continue their impressive play, look for the Rangers to not even be given the opportunity to play at home in a Game 7.