Lightning find new life after beating Rangers in dramatic fashion in Game 3

The Tampa Bay Lightning once again found a way to get it done with their backs against the wall. (Getty)
The Tampa Bay Lightning once again found a way to get it done with their backs against the wall. (Getty)

Ondrej Palat scored the game-winning goal with 41 seconds remaining as the Tampa Bay Lightning came back in the third period to defeat the New York Rangers in Game 3.

Tampa Bay overcame a 2-1 deficit entering the final frame, but Steven Stamkos scored the game-tying goal on the power play just over a minute into the period before Palat emerged as the Game 3 hero.

Nikita Kucherov scored a goal and bagged two assists, while Igor Shesterkin’s heroics weren’t enough for New York to take a commanding 3-0 series lead.

Here are three takeaways from Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Kucherov plays like a man possessed with dynasty status on the line

For all intents and purposes, if the Rangers were to take a 3-0 series lead, you may as well have punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final and this certainly wasn’t lost on the Lightning, who played with a tremendous sense of urgency. Nikita Kucherov appeared to understand this better than anyone, playing like a man possessed throughout the contest while showing off his otherworldly skill in a must-win game for the back-to-back champs.

It didn’t always look like Kucherov would be rewarded for his efforts, as he attacked the offensive zone with real menace throughout the contest. At the halfway mark of the first period, Kucherov burst in alone on a breakaway but was robbed by Igor Shesterkin. Perhaps a lesser team, one without championship pedigree, would’ve been deterred. New York built a 2-0 lead in the second period, after a particularly undisciplined stretch from Tampa Bay led to power play goals from the red-hot Mika Zibanejad (12 points during an eight-game point streak) and Chris Kreider. You could almost carve the Rangers on the Prince of Wales Trophy.

Tampa Bay threw everything it had at Shesterkin and it didn’t seem to matter until Kucherov broke through on the power play, one-timing a feed from Victor Hedman past New York’s outstretched goaltender, and it changed the trajectory of the contest. Throughout Game 3, the Lightning were the superior team, tossing a constant barrage of shots at Shesterkin but Kucherov’s goal galvanized a necessary third-period comeback.

Kucherov helped set up Stamkos’ game-tying goal, dishing the puck off to Corey Perry and distracting a nearby Rangers defender. Perry delivered the puck right in Stamkos’ wheelhouse — when he eventually enters the Hall of Fame, you could just start with a reel full of one-timers — and the game changed entirely. Tampa Bay outshot New York 13-3 in the final frame and were fully deserving of the win.

With an unintended flair for the dramatic, Kucherov saved his best for last. As three Rangers defenders collapsed into the slot, Kucherov flicked a no-look pass onto Palat’s stick, who jammed it just past Shesterkin for the game-winner. Palat’s puck-retrieval ability and versatility across the lineup has made him a tremendous asset for the Lightning, but sometimes, it takes a one-of-one talent to swing the balance.

If the Lightning pull off the series comeback, you have to start with Kucherov’s Game 3 performance.

Lightning have been overly dependent on their power play

Palat’s game-winner perhaps changes the equation a bit, but it wasn’t enough to disavow myself of the notion that the Lightning are becoming far too reliant on their power play. It was the first goal Tampa Bay scored at 5-on-5 since Game 1 — Nick Paul’s third-period marker in Game 2 occurred when it had pulled the goalie — and despite the procession of shots sent at Shesterkin, it appeared that Tampa’s offense had completely dried up at 5-on-5.

Tampa Bay ripped through an excellent New York penalty kill and were much better in Game 3, in large part due to Victor Hedman making calmer reads at the blue line, which allowed Kucherov and Stamkos to be perpetually available in shooting lanes. Perhaps this is a convoluted way of saying that the Lightning are becoming overly reliant on its top-six for offense more broadly, but despite the math indicating that the Bolts may not be in real danger, they’re not getting a whole lot from their bottom-six.

Alex Killorn has struggled badly throughout the playoffs, and this was perhaps his finest outing since the Maple Leafs series, drawing two penalties, while the Lightning earned a 68 percent shot share when he was on the ice at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick. The line of Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Brandon Hagel outshot their opponents 24-5 in Game 3, but it didn’t lead to any actual goals. This could be a problem down the line, if you believe that Killorn and Cirelli’s underwhelming offensive production isn’t merely bad shooting luck.

Can the Bolts get going at 5-on-5? There’s room for optimism in the math, but despite their best performance of the series, the Lightning could be in trouble solely relying on Kucherov, Stamkos and Hedman to put the puck in the net.

Shesterkin’s pursuit of a Triple Crown

Igor Shesterkin was brilliant once again for the Rangers, making 48 saves in a losing effort. If the Rangers had pushed this game to overtime and won, the victory would primarily be credited to the heroics of New York’s all-world goaltender. Shesterkin is the Vezina Trophy favourite, he’s been nominated for the Hart Trophy and despite the loss, he should be elevated to the top of the Conn Smythe Trophy power rankings, operating under the assumption that Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers will be booking tee times after Monday evening.

Shesterkin gave the Rangers every opportunity to win Sunday, stymying Kucherov on a breakaway in the first period, and it seemed nearly impossible to beat him down low, as the 26-year-old slid alertly through his crease. He saved just over 1.5 goals above expected via Natural Stat Trick and without him, you could see the Lightning walking off with a comfortable victory, instead of it coming down to the last minute.

This very well may be the best individual season we’ve seen from a goaltender in the past 12 years and Shesterkin should have plenty of hardware to take home this summer. He’ll almost certainly walk away with the Vezina and perhaps because I’m writing this from Toronto, but it appears as if he’ll finish second behind Auston Matthews for the Hart, so the pursuit of a Triple Crown may be more theoretical than realistic. The fact that Shesterkin is genuinely in contention for an individual Triple Crown speaks volumes about his ascendance to superstardom.

Shesterkin has done all of this in full view of Andrei Vasilevskiy, a player that he and many others have considered to be the best goaltender in the world, a reputation earned from his consistently stellar performances over the past six years. If the Rangers advance to the Cup, he should catapult to the top of the Conn Smythe rankings and it’s certainly worth amplifying his candidacy now.

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