In Game 1 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers, the Tampa Bay Lightning had their high-octane offense smothered and lost 2-1 to a Blueshirts squad that specializes in 2-1 wins. However, the Bolts hadn't won their previous two playoff series this year because their opponents were able to hold down that offense for long. And in Game 2 in Manhattan, Tampa broke out on offense early and often and got another outstanding performance from center Tyler Johnson to defeat the Rangers 6-2 and steal home ice advantage in their third-round series.
Johnson was a one-man wrecking crew at Madison Square Garden Monday, scoring the Lightning's first three goals – the first, a shorthanded goal; the second, a power play goal; and the last, at even-strength – and although the Rangers close the gap to a 3-2 Bolts lead after two periods, the visiting team got two goals from Alex Killorn and another from Steven Stamkos in the final frame to put the game out of reach.
Just as they did in the second round against Montreal cornerstone goalie Carey Price, the Lightning showed Monday they could solve a star in net. And once again, they got solid netminding out of Ben Bishop, who stopped 35 of 37 Blueshirts shots and registered a .946 save percentage.
And now it's on the Rangers to steal a victory in Tampa Bay, where the Lightning have won five of seven games in this post-season. If they can't get that offense uncorked beyond the two goals per game they've scored of late, their season will end one round sooner than it did last year.
The Blueshirts continued receiving offense from 24-year-olds Chris Kreider (who scored his sixth of the playoffs) and Derek Stepan (who added his fifth of the playoffs), but yet again couldn't get a goal out of either Martin St-Louis or Rick Nash. St-Louis did chip in a pair of primary assists, but he and Nash combined for only five shots on net – and as he has before in these playoffs, Nash couldn't convert on another breakaway opportunity. The Rangers were the better possession team and outshot Tampa 37-26, but on a night where the officiating crew of referees Chris Rooney and Kelly Sutherland bucked convention and called penalties as they might in a regular season game – the nerve! – the Blueshirts were the more undisciplined team, giving the Bolts a whopping six power plays. The Lightning scored on half of their man advantages, and that's essentially the difference between a blowout and a traditional Rangers one-goal game.
Tampa Bay now has five players – Johnson, Killorn, Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat – who have at least 10 playoff points this year and who have combined for 64 points in 15 games. The Rangers have just one – Stepan, with 10 – and their top five scorers have combined for 40 points in 14 games. That's a very good indication of what could be the end of the Rangers in this series. They've leaned on Lundqvist for too long without their best and most handsomely-compensated players in front of him coming through on their end of the bargain.
The Lightning, on the other hand, have needed Bishop to play well, but haven't required he be Mr. Everything for them to come out on top. They can be sloppy at times and Bishop can let in the occasional soft goal, but there's never any quit in them, and they've got the speed, youth and talent to score themselves back into games quickly. They have to worry about controlling their defense from night-to-night and shift-to-shift, but they've proven adept at that for long enough to have their offense-minded players do what they do best.
The Rangers are a different story. Their defense is what comes naturally, and their key veterans other than Lundqvist are simply not getting the job done. Nash (who hasn't scored in this series and has just two goals in this post-season) and St-Louis (who was the goat on Johnson's shorthanded goal that kicked off the scoring) can be responsible in their own zone all they want, but they're also being paid to be responsible for what happens in the opposition's end.
At the moment, that accountability is there, but not in a good way. The heat is on the both of them, as well as the Rangers' other well-paid players, to change that in a hurry.