The New York Rangers scored 10 goals in their previous two games heading into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final Sunday. But the Blueshirts reverted to their offensively-inept ways against Tampa Bay and were shut out 2-0 as the Lightning took a 3-2 series lead.
The New York Rangers’ shortcomings on offense in the 2015 playoffs have been extensively documented and remain apparent to anyone who’s watched them regularly this spring. They’re a team that had no issue putting the puck in the net in the regular season, ranking third in the NHL with average of 3.02 goals-for per game – but in their first 17 post-season games, they’ve managed just 2.24 GPG and often play as if the concept of scoring is foreign to them. The Blueshirts gave their fans hope they’d ended their offensive funk with a 5-1 victory over Tampa Bay in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final Friday, but Sunday night in Game 5, the same old Rangers showed up, and not one of them could beat Bolts goalie Ben Bishop in a 2-0 Lightning win.
Yes, they’re the defending conference champions. Yes, they were the better possession team Sunday at at Madison Square Garden and outshot the Lightning 26-22 in Game 5. But for the third time in this series, Tampa Bay was the squad whose players capitalized on their chances as the Rangers flailed away impotently against Bishop. And although the Blueshirts remain able to play a tight defensive game, they’re one loss from elimination with little reason for optimism they can produce enough offense for the two consecutive games they now need to move on in the tournament.
That said, it wasn’t as if the the Blueshirts played an airtight game on defense. They got hammered in the faceoff circle (losing 24 of 39 draws) and star goalie Henrik Lundqvist posted a save percentage of below .910 for the third time in the series. And the way things are shaping up with their goal-scorers, they’re going to have to be next-to-perfect to shut down Tampa Bay.
How likely is that? You can never say it can’t happen – especially with a Rangers team that’s frequently won series after the opposition has won three games in the series – but let’s take a look at what the Lightning are doing out there that makes it unlikely: Captain Steven Stamkos factored in on both goals Sunday with his seventh of the playoffs and an assist; he’s now on a four-game scoring streak and has seven points in that span. And although their deadly Tyler Johnson-Ondrej-Palat-Nikita-Kucherov line only produced a single assist in Game 5, Tampa Bay’s first goal came from veteran center Valtteri Filppula.
In essence, Tampa’s offense can come from just about anywhere. On the other hand, the Rangers’ offense can only come in major spurts – they scored a combined 10 goals on Bishop in Games 3 and 4 – and if Lundqvist isn’t at his best, they’re not guaranteed to win (as they failed to in a 6-5 Game 3 defeat) then, either. Otherwise, they’re a vast desert when it comes to offense. Sunday night, they got nothing from veterans Martin St-Louis (who got just two shots on Bishop) and Rick Nash, and their youngsters who’ve been so good for them couldn’t do any better. The Lightning gave them four power plays, and they were unable to convert on a single one.
The Rangers have a day to practice and try regaining their confidence before Game 6 goes down in Tampa Bay Tuesday, but the pressure for them to win is enormous. GM Glen Sather went all-in once again on a veteran-laden team built in part by dealing away draft picks and prospects, and a backward slide this year would represent another failure of his philosophy. Lundqvist is 33 years old. Nash turns 31 in June. St-Louis will turn 40 in June and looks every year of it out there against his former team. There’s enough young talent (including J.T. Miller, Ryan McDonagh, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes) in the organization to remain competitive, but serious change must and will be considered in Manhattan if the Lightning win the series. This group has diminishing returns written over some of its most important components.
It’s not just about an opportunity lost this year. It’s about being honest and asking whether next year’s Rangers team will be capable of eliminating a Lightning squad whose best years are ahead of it, or other young teams on the rise. Tampa Bay’s fortunes are so high, some are wondering openly about the possibility of trading Stamkos before his salary demands go through the roof, and allowing their core of young stars around him to carry the load. That’s how much scoring the Bolts have right now.
The Lightning have an embarrassment of riches on offense. The Rangers are just an embarrassment on offense.