The New York Rangers are finding ways to win without captain Ryan McDonagh, and it starts with Henrik Lundqvist
Derek Stepan scored twice and set up Chris Kreider's winner and Lundqvist made 39 saves in leading the Rangers to a come-from-behind 3-2 victory over the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.
"He was our best player tonight without a doubt," Stepan said of Lundqvist. "We came out of the first only down 2-0 because of him and he made some big-time saves the rest of the game."
Lundqvist was phenomenal in the first period, stopping 19 shots in a period where the team took too many penalties and seemed to be sleep walking after learning that McDonagh would miss the final three games of the regular season with an upper-body injury (hand) that makes his status for the playoffs uncertain.
"He's done that for his whole career," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Lundqvist. "He kept them close enough to get back in it and that's what good goalies do. We had ample opportunity to score tonight and they just weren't going in."
Lundqvist had a lot to do with that, with his best save being a glove stop on Tyler Johnson in the second period while lying on his stomach in the crease.
"Hank kept us in it," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "We were able to buckle down and put our work boots on."
Andrej Sustr and Brian Boyle staked the Lightning to an early 2-0 lead, but they could not hold off the Rangers in the final two periods. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 25 saves for Tampa Bay, which earned its third straight playoff berth when Boston lost in a shootout to Carolina.
"We been under fire a little bit here and there throughout the season," Cooper said. "We really didn't find ourselves until after Christmas but these guys really bailed themselves out of a hole, because I'm not sure we were in the playoffs at Christmas time. Now here we are with a couple of games left and we have punched our ticket."
The Rangers, who lost to the Lightning in seven games in the Eastern Conference final last year, clinched their sixth straight playoff berth on Monday night with a win over Columbus.
They were a no-show for the first period, but they had the better of the play in the final 40 minutes, especially after killing off a 5-minute major penalty for interference on Tanner Glass.
Stepan got the Rangers back in the game with a power-play goal with 3:05 left in the second period. Kreider screened Vasilevskiy in front and Stepan beat the goaltender with a shot from the left faceoff circle.
Stepan tied the game 2:33 into the third period with a shot from the right circle that appeared to deflect off the stick of Tampa Bay defenseman Jason Garrison.
Kreider's winner came on a breakaway after taking a pass from Stepan. The speedy winger came in on goal and scored his 21st of the season on a backhander, his fifth goal in six games.
The game had an ugly ending when Boyle shoved Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi into the boards, picking up a major penalty. Girardi needed a couple of minutes to get back up.
The Lightning started the game on a mission to nail down their playoff berth, and they nearly ran the Rangers out of Madison Square Garden in the opening period, outshooting New York 21-6.
Sustr put Tampa Bay ahead just 2:42 after the opening faceoff with a shot from between the circles. Vladislav Namestnokov set it up, retrieving his own rebound behind the goal line and throwing the puck in front.
Boyle stretched the margin to two goals less than 4 minutes later with his 13th of the season. It came on the sixth shot of a power play with Dylan McIlrath off for hooking.
"Our start was brutal," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "I mean we were still on the plane from the night before. We weren't very good."
Lundqvist said his focus was to survive the period.
"As long as you keep it a two-goal game, you know you can turn it around," he said. "You just want that goal on the board and get some momentum."
The Rangers are 4-1-1 with McDonagh out of the lineup, with Lundqvist going 4-1-0.
NOTES: The Lightning played without D Victor Hedman (upper body) and F Ryan Callahan (lower body). ... Lundqvist got a delay of game penalty for shooting the puck out of the rink in the first period. The officials would not let Kreider serve the penalty because he was not on the ice. Glass eventually served it. ... Rangers D Dan Boyle was given the night off along with C Kevin Hayes. McIlrath and F Oscar Lindberg played. ... The 21 shots are the most given up by the Rangers in a period, one better than Winnipeg early in the season