TAMPA, Fla. — The last time the Rangers were here, Kaapo Kakko watched Game 6 of the conference finals in street clothes after having been designated as a healthy scratch.
This time, it was his pingpong-ball twin Alexis Lafreniere to suffer the same fate for Thursday’s match here against the Lightning.
Both games ended 2-1 for Tampa Bay. But whereas the one in the late spring signaled finality for 2021-22, this defeat in a shootout provides a dose of optimism for the Rangers as they turn the corner into 2023.
The Blueshirts sure left Tuesday’s stinker of a 4-0 defeat to the Capitals in the rearview as quickly as possible. They played intense, hungry hockey in a wildly entertaining game Thursday that went up and down, back and forth, and never seemed to stop until Andrei Vasilevskiy’s sixth-round save on Adam Fox’s backhand signaled its end.
If these were the real Rangers, they will be all right.
“This is the game we have to play,” Jacob Trouba said. “There was high intensity and physicality. If we play like that and lose, we can live with that.
“It was a fun game to be a part of.”
Igor Shesterkin and Vasilevskiy were both brilliant in facing 40 and 46 shots, respectively, before Tampa Bay got two in the shootout while the Rangers scored once. According to NaturalStatTrick, the Lightning generated 43 scoring chances to the Rangers’ 29 while holding a 22-11 advantage in high-danger chances. These were season-highs against the Blueshirts in this track meet of a match in which the puck was almost never in the neutral zone.
“Everybody was more aggressive,” said Mika Zibanejad, who broke an eight-game goalless drought by beating Vasilevskiy 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 Blueshirts attacked with the lead. Tampa Bay counterattacked. There were exchanges of odd-man rushes. The Rangers generated three breakaways and a two-on-one, on none of which they scored. The Lightning kept jamming and crashing the net before finally getting the equalizer when Brayden Point’s backdoor left-porch redirect of a Steven Stamkos pass banked in off a spinning Shesterkin’s pads at 5:32 of the third period.
“Every time we play, they bring out the best in us,” said Barclay Goodrow, who of course earned back-to-back Cup rings with the Lightning. “We competed and we battled as hard as we could.
“I think we’re pretty self-aware. We knew that the Washington game was unacceptable. I don’t think anyone needed to tell us that. We know how we need to play. This was much more like it.”
Remodeling the line combinations had its desired effect. The newborn Julien Gauthier-Filip Chytil-Vitali Kravtsov unit was dynamic pretty much throughout, owning a 68.60 xGF pct. in 9:37 while sending a combined eight shots on net on 11 attempts.
Gauthier had a couple of dashes to the net on which he was denied. Kravtsov had his most physically engaged match of the year, getting himself into battles and trying to get to the inside on a night in which he dipsy-doodled Victor Hedman one-on-one during the first period. Chytil was dangerous throughout, testing Vasilevskiy repeatedly.
The reunited Kakko-Zibanejad-Chris Kreider unit that had been intact for the opening 13 games of the season while acting 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 created Zibanejad’s goal that marked No. 93’s first at five-on-five in the last dozen games. Kreider had his most impressive game in a couple of weeks and sent six shots on net on 10 attempts.
Vincent Trocheck, again centering Panarin on one side with Goodrow on the other, had six shots. Panarin, who missed a couple of wide-open nets on an overtime power play, had four shots on nine attempts.
The power play looked crisper and generated more good looks that included a half-dozen glorious opportunities, but still finished 0-for-3 in extending the string of misery to 1-for-16 over the last four contests. Still, it was better.
The Rangers are in a wild playoff scramble in which every point matters. Getting one rather than two is not going to cut it. But this night, the team’s performance and the rebound effect from Tuesday overshadowed the loss of a point.
All year, Gerard Gallant has called the opening night 3-1 victory over Tampa Bay at the Garden the team’s best game. This, he said, was the second-best.
The Rangers are going to need a lot of third-bests the rest of the way.