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NHL

The Lightning Finally Struck

Ondrej Palat celebrates scoring a goal
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

After the Rangers punctured the Lightning’s aura of invincibility, becoming the first team since 2019 to win back-to-back playoff games against the two-time defending champs, it perhaps got a little tempting to find reasons to count out Tampa. They badly missed injured superstar Brayden Point. They were feeling the fatigue from two years of excellence and deep runs. They were lacking the depth previously provided by guys like Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman, both lost in the last offseason. Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers’ goalie, was simply better than Andrei Vasilevskiy in these playoffs.

But nothing makes you believe in a team again like a moment of brilliance striking at just the right time, and that’s what the Lightning called down upon the Rangers in the final moments of a spirited Game 3 performance that kept this series competitive.

Both team’s stars played each other to a stalemate in the game’s first 59 minutes. Igor and Andrei were each perfect in 5-on-5 action, with Shesterkin impressively finishing the game with 49 saves. But when each side’s best forwards got on the power play, they became too much for undermanned defenses to handle. Mika Zibanejad scored on a big, unstoppable one-timer midway through the second to make it 1-0, and just a few minutes later the only Ranger to outscore him this year, Chris Kreider, parked himself in a dangerous spot and then waited for the puck to get on his stick, as he does and as it does.

New York appeared to be cruising toward a dominant position in this series, but Nikita Kucherov—the NHL’s playoff scoring leader in each of the last two seasons—produced a one-timer of his own to get a goal back with the game still half-full. And then early in the third, the Lightning captain Steven Stamkos fired—guess!—a one-timer through Shesterkin for the tie.

A four-minute penalty to Kucherov in the late going somehow failed to open the door to a Rangers win, and in the tense final minutes of this one, the Lightning took a trip back to what made them the Lightning in the first place. Before this particular group of Bolts had any Cups to defend, they made their names as the most uniquely beautiful team in hockey, headlined by scorers with the ability at any given moment to weave a tapestry of passes that climaxed with an emphatic goal. It was these highlights, more than any other, that established just how above the rest of the league the Lightning were, even before their names on the Cup provided hard evidence. And just as everyone started planning for overtime in Game 3, another one appeared to give their threepeat bid new life.

With under a minute remaining in regulation, Victor Hedman, from the back left corner of the attacking zone, passed diagonally into the busy slot area, where Kucherov received it with his back to the net. Facing the wrong way and with three defenders still between him and the goalie, this was not a particularly advantageous position for scoring. But Kucherov, almost like he could see into the future, backhanded a soft pass without hesitation to Ondrej Palat skating in from the wing. Palat, too, didn’t miss a beat, and before anyone else could even really comprehend what they were doing, the puck was in the net and the series was back to a manageable 2-1 deficit.

This is what a trio with 402 games of combined playoff experience, all of it with Tampa, can do when it matters most.

“I was just trying to shoot it in net, and luckily it went in,” Palat—rarely the focus but always a key contributor on this team—humbly said afterward.

His little shot doesn’t quite wrest control of this series away from New York, given that they do retain a lead and home-ice advantage. But thanks to that goal, instead of a near-impossible situation for the Lightning they instead have to face a reasonably manageable problem of winning three before the Rangers win two. And as they reminded any doubters already getting curious about how the Avalanche might try to pick apart Shesterkin, Tampa still possesses a tremendous amount of talent that can stun you with a gorgeous clutch goal in the most high-pressure of situations. Until the Rangers get those last two wins, the Lightning remain the champions. For the first time all series, they showed why.