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Lightning score two late goals to stun Rangers in Game 5

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The Tampa Bay Lightning scored a pair of late goals to power past the New York Rangers 3-1 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday.

Ondrej Palat recorded the deciding tally with one minute and 50 seconds remaining in the third period, while Brandon Hagel tucked home an insurance goal with just under a minute left, as the Lightning are now one game away from their third consecutive Stanley Cup Final.

Mikhail Sergachev also scored for Tampa Bay and was originally credited with the game-winner, while Ryan Lindgren countered for New York. Here are the major takeaways from the game:

Mikhail Sergachev (#98) led the Lightning over the Rangers in Game 5. (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)
Mikhail Sergachev (#98) led the Lightning over the Rangers in Game 5. (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Sergachev Game couldn’t have arrived at a better time for the Lightning

It’s only fitting that during the cagiest game of the series, it was an unsung defensive hero who shone brightest for the Lightning. Sergachev’s first goal of the postseason came at the most opportune time for the defending champions, who will be looking to close the series out at Amalie Arena on Saturday night.

Sergachev’s goal perhaps illustrated how narrow the margin of error is for the Rangers. Kevin Rooney, who entered the series due to Ryan Strome’s Game 3 injury, carelessly huffed the puck off the boards, and it ended up on Sergachev’s stick. Corey Perry screened Igor Shesterkin and Sergachev wired a perfect seeing-eye shot through traffic to tie the game.

The game-winning marker was eventually credited to Palat, but Sergachev was initially listed with the goal. Although he hadn’t scored since an April 16 regular season contest against the Winnipeg Jets, Sergachev’s confidence evidently skyrocketed, and he got another shot through traffic to stun Shesterkin that hit Palat en route to the net.

There may be a tendency to attribute Sergachev’s brace as a byproduct of shooting luck, but he was the best skater on the ice for the Lightning with four shots, while the Lightning controlled over 68 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5 with him on the ice, per Natural Stat Trick.

If the Lightning advance to the Final, it’s because their unique combination of superstars and proven depth have an innate sense of when to rise to the occasion. Sergachev has been far more than a bit player in the consecutive Cup runs, and in some ways he’s the bridge between the team’s dynastic present and uncertain future.

It’s hard to believe at times, but Sergachev is just 23 years old, and would profile as a sure-fire top-pair defenseman on a lesser team. He has rarely, if ever, complained about his minutes or his role, even as one of the league’s ascendent talents on the blue line. As historians and hockey fans alike look back on the Lightning’s reign, there will be certain games that stand out. Remember Thursday evening as the Mikhail Sergachev Game.

Do the Rangers have anything left in the tank?

The road team finally emerged with a key victory, and the Rangers could be facing impending doom. The Lightning always had the larger margin of error because of their talent and continuity, and the series is clearly theirs for the taking now. The Rangers may simply be out of cards to play.

If New York were to win the series, Igor Shesterkin would have to outduel Andrei Vasilevskiy, and for large stretches of the series he's done exactly that. Although Shesterkin is likely fuming internally about allowing two goals from non-prime scoring locations, he’s the primary reason why the Rangers are still in this series, and he certainly didn’t play poorly Thursday night. It’s an unreasonable ask, but he has the impossible task of outplaying the world’s best goaltender every night, and Vasilevskiy was certainly better in Game 5, with 25 stops and a goal saved above expected.

Shesterkin earned his flowers from the Madison Square Garden faithful, who serenaded him once again with “IGOR” chants throughout the contest, but it’s on the rest of New York’s skaters to step up, too. New York’s Kid Line of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil, who flustered Tampa Bay completely in a 6-2 Game 1 rout, did next to nothing offensively and were rendered impotent.

Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad were on fire throughout the playoffs and outplayed Tampa Bay’s superstars — namely Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos — through the first two games. Kucherov and Stamkos have played like top-10 players in the world since, while Kreider and Zibanejad have gone cold.

Chytil may be playing hurt, Strome is out of the lineup and New York may be out of immediate adjustments. It received solid goaltending from Shesterkin, and Lindgren and K’Andre Miller elevated their games, while Adam Fox played up to his reputation, and it was still all for naught.

It was all good just a week ago as the Rangers had seemingly pushed the Lightning to the brink, but never underestimate the heart of a champion.

The aura of Elimination Game Vasilevskiy

We’ve expended plenty of words about Vasilevskiy’s genius, which at times can feel singular, even as Shesterkin rides out one of the best individual campaigns we’ve seen from a goaltender this century. Vasilevskiy is nearly impossible to beat on an average day and he’s elevated his game into a different tier when the Lightning have an opportunity to close an opponent out.

Just ask the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are once again stuck in the sporting equivalent of purgatory as Vasilevskiy rendered one of the league’s most potent attacks useless. How about the Florida Panthers, who peppered 49 shots at The Big Cat and couldn’t get through, scoring just three goals in four games after averaging more than four per contest this season? What about his 22-save shutout in Game 5 of the 2021 Stanley Cup Final? Or his 18-save clean sheet against the New York Islanders in the 2021 Eastern Conference Final? How about — you know what, you get the idea, and his aura of invincibility continues to grow in 2022.

If the Lightning advance to the final and win it all for an unthinkable third straight year, Kucherov would be the likely favourite to win the Conn Smythe, Stamkos at full strength has been a sight to behold, and Victor Hedman may have something to prove to Cale Makar for the title of best defenseman alive. But when the games matter the most, the world’s best goaltender enters a new tier. There isn’t a word for it that suffices. For now, just call it the aura of Elimination Game Vasilevskiy.

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