Artemi Panarin needs to get going. The Rangers’ top forwards can’t disappear.
It’s not enough anymore to lean on the kids.
Tuesday night’s 4-1 Game 4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning was disappointingly one-sided, evening this Eastern Conference Final at two games apiece.
“We weren’t paying the price,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “We didn’t get inside enough. I don’t know how many quality chances we had, five or six probably. You have to get a lot more in a hockey game.”
And while the Rangers still own home ice advantage, starting with Game 5 Thursday night at the Garden, there is no advantage in allowing a series against a reigning two-time Stanley Cup championship team to drag on.
That’s especially true if the dynamic Panarin, top line center Mika Zibanejad, goal scorer Chris Kreider and all of the Rangers’ leading men continue to get stuck in mud as they did in these past two losses at Tampa’s home ice inside Amalie Arena.
They’ve been better on their home ice, of course.
Similar to the second round series against the Carolina Hurricanes, it’s been harder for coach Gerard Gallant to get his horses going on the road, where Lightning coach Jon Cooper has the last change to match Anthony Cirelli’s unit against the Blueshirts’ A-listers.
“I thought we created a little more offense today,” Zibanejad said. “We’ve got to worry about ourselves and not too much about who we’re playing. We did a little better job of that today but it wasn’t enough.”
The Rangers could be down two of their top three centers for Game 5, however.
‘Kid Line’ center extraordinaire Filip Chytil left the ice 13:42 into Tuesday’s second period, after a hit by Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, and did not return with an upper-body injury.
Second-line center Ryan Strome also was an injured scratch for Game 4 despite testing out his injury in warmups.
Fourth-line center Barclay Goodrow was bumped up in between Panarin and Andrew Copp in Strome’s absence. Kevin Rooney dressed as the fourth-line center for the first time since Game 5 against the Hurricanes, a healthy scratch for the past five games.
The Rangers were so passive early on Tuesday that winger Frank Vatrano dropped the gloves with Lightning forward Brandon Hagel and took his first-ever fighting major in his 433rd career NHL game — regular season and playoffs — to try and light a spark.
But Nikita Kucherov beat Igor Shesterkin five-hole — again — less than two minutes later for a 2-0 lead, building on Pat Maroon’s first period rebound tally against Rooney’s fourth-line.
Then Steven Stamkos added a rebound tally in the third period for good measure.
Defenseman Jacob Trouba shook off the suggestion that the Lightning had played with more desperation these past two games, but the results speak for themselves.
“I mean, they’re back to back Stanley Cup champions,” Trouba said. “We’re in the Eastern Conference Final. Desperation I don’t think is in it. They scored some goals, we didn’t capitalize on ours. I don’t think we expected to walk in here and blow the doors off them … It wasn’t like we got the doors blown off us. It’s best of three in the Eastern Conference Final. It’s something to be excited about. We’re in a pretty good spot.”
Panarin hopefully can build on a power play goal 16:27 into Tuesday’s third period that ruined Andrei Vasilevskiy’s shutout off assists from Andrew Copp and Adam Fox.
Ondrej Palat’s empty net goal in the final seconds capped a disappointing night, though. And now the Rangers have to hope Chytil will be healthy enough to play on Thursday.
The Czech has five goals and six points in the last six games. It is not a stretch to say he is irreplaceable to the success of this team.
His line with Kaapo Kakko and Alexis LaFreniere again was one of the lone bright spots when the Rangers surged only intermittently in Tuesday’s second period.
Gallant’s Rangers had only five scoring chances through two periods, and they were nearly shut out for the second time in 18 games this postseason.
They have not scored an even strength goal on Vasilevskiy in the last 138:39 of play, going back to Game 2 at the Garden. All three of their goals in Games 3 and 4 in Tampa came on the power play.
The Blueshirts’ only shutout defeat remains a 2-0 loss at Carolina in Game 2 of last series, before they made an improbable comeback and won four of the next five to advance.
After winning six of seven through Game 2 against Tampa, however, they have now lost two straight and are returning to New York shorthanded.
So it is now more than ever on the big guns, namely Mr. 96 Points Panarin himself, to surge and rise to Shesterkin’s level in net and provide the offense and pressure necessary to get this done.
It is on Zibanejad (81 points) and Kreider (52 goals, 77 points), too, even after they’ve done so much to get this team this far.
“Now it’s a two out of three and we still got the home ice,” Gallant said. “But we’ve got to play better.”
Panarin has a point in six of the last seven games. And he did make a beautiful give-and-go pass to LaFreniere late in the second period before Vasilevskiy made the right shoulder stop, in addition to his late goal.
But Gallant juggled his lines in the early second period and put Panarin on Zibanejad’s line in place of Kreider for a reason: it wasn’t working. The Lightning looked to have figured the Blueshirts out.
Fox, limited to mostly an afterthought for these two games in Tampa, admitted at second intermission that the Rangers were playing into the Bolts’ neutral zone trap. He still has a point in nine straight games, but it wasn’t enough Tuesday.
Cooper’s team was making everything difficult through the middle and then daring the Rangers to chip the puck behind their defensemen and chase it.
The Rangers prefer possession and passing with the play in front of them. It didn’t mix in the visitors’ favor.
Gallant still can look his team in the eyes, of course, and remind them that they’ve won eight straight home games; that they’re 8-1 at home this postseason; that their 2-7 road record is brightened by two wins in elimination games on the Penguins’ and Hurricanes’ ice.
But it will not be easy against this Lightning team, even at the rocking Garden in Game 5 and a hypothetical Game 7, especially if the Rangers are shorthanded up the middle without as key a player as Chytil.
It will be on the big guys to come up big.