TAMPA — The Lightning’s season wasn’t on the line Sunday, but it might as well have been when they went into the locker room for the second intermission trailing the Rangers by a goal, 20 minutes from sinking into a 3-0 hole in the Eastern Conference final.
Before Game 3, the Lightning talked about finding a way to get one win and going from there. New York outplayed Tampa Bay in the first two games at Madison Square Garden, but given where it has gotten them, the Lightning weren’t going to scrap their winning recipe now.
“We just had to stay with it,” coach Jon Cooper said. “I think there were times in this series when we’ve tried to manufacture things that weren’t there, and that put us on our heels.”
Captain Steven Stamkos tied the score at 2 with a power-play goal 82 seconds into the third period, and from there the Lightning kept grinding and trusting in their 5-on-5 play.
The Lightning again found a way to win, this time from a familiar source. Forward Ondrej Palat scored the winning goal with 41.6 seconds remaining, sending Tampa Bay to a 3-2 win with the opportunity to tie the series at two games each Tuesday on home ice.
“We played a good 5-on-5 game,” Palat said, “and we were just wanting to keep going and shoot the puck, and eventually we knew we were going to score.”
Palat’s goal was his 10th career winner in the postseason, passing former teammate Tyler Johnson for the most in Lightning history. Only four active players have more playoff winners than Palat, whose name doesn’t jump off the Lightning’s star-studded roster.
The way the Lightning came back from the brink felt a lot like how they fought off elimination a month ago in Game 6 of their first-round series against the Maple Leafs. They were down 3-2 in the series and went into the third period of Game 6 down a goal before tying the score and winning in overtime on a Brayden Point goal.
“It wasn’t as dire a situation, but the feeling and the sense of urgency was the same,” Stamkos said. “At that point, we either fold up and just hope out there, or you go out and do it.
“I thought we pushed the pace, and I thought we did a great job of executing the game plan in the third. Did we expect to score with 40 seconds left? No. We were excited to be tied up (and going to) overtime. It was heck of a shift. … We’ve done that a couple of times now, and it can be a huge momentum swing for our group.”
On the winning goal, defenseman Victor Hedman found forward Nikita Kucherov in the slot. Kucherov looked over his left shoulder and flung a backhand pass past Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad to Palat’s stick. Palat’s wrister from the low right circle beat Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin at the near post over his glove.
“I saw ‘Pally’ on the lefty side and was trying to get open for ‘Heddy’ in the middle, and Heddy found me, and I found Pally on the left side, and that’s it,” Kucherov said.
The Lightning went into the third period trailing 2-1, having allowed two Rangers power-play goals in the second before scoring a power-play goal of their own.
The first Rangers power-play goal came after forward Corey Perry was called for slashing Shesterkin, though the goaltender’s dramatic fall had the Lightning yelling for an embellishment penalty they didn’t get.
Zibanejad scored, and forward Chris Kreider added a power-play goal just over two minutes later after Lightning forward Riley Nash, playing his first game in 1½ months, skated into Shesterkin.
Despite the hole, the Lightning stuck with their play. They had been outplaying New York at even strength and established much more offensive zone time than they had in the first two games of the series. They finished with 51 shots on goal to the Rangers’ 30.
“I think maybe three, four years ago, maybe panic would have set in at some point. Definitely not with this group,” Cooper said. “No question being here before helped us just with our mindset.”
Kucherov cut the Rangers’ lead to one halfway through the second, but the Lightning went into the locker room for the intermission facing another tough challenge.
Palat said the room was calm during the break. Forward Pat Maroon said there was nothing but positivity.
“It was one of those games where we’ve just got to stick with it and stay in the fight,” Maroon said. “And you’ve just got to remember that feeling. You know how hard it is to just get those opportunities and finally get a goal there.
“There’s a lot of veterans in that room. There’s a lot of players who understand their roles and understand the game. And how the game had been going, you’ve just got to stick to the game plan and have some positivity and go out there and try to steal the game, and the guys stuck with it. That’s just one (win), though, so we’ve got to keep battling here. It’s going to be a long series.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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