NEW YORK -- Even though the theme has been completely different in each of the four games in this series, no one should be surprised that the Eastern Conference finals between the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning is tied 2-2.
The teams split the first two games in New York, and that trend continued in Games 3 and 4 in Tampa. Game 5 puck drop will be Sunday (8 p.m. ET) at Madison Square Garden.
With a 5-1 win in Game 4, the Rangers appeared to have their swagger back. Things became chippy and nasty in the waning minutes of regulation, which means it's only going to get better. Hockey fans should expect this series to go the distance because that's exactly how each team feels at this point.
"Bottom line is Rangers won 5-1 and the series is 2-2, and that's probably how it should be," Tampa coach Jon Cooper said Saturday before the team traveled to New York. "These are two good teams battling it out. It's really, really exciting hockey. Got to turn the page. Even after a win, you've got to turn the page."
Goaltending has struggled for both teams at times during this series. Both coaches were forced to answer questions about possible goalie changes, and both laughed at that notion. There's no way Cooper will replace Ben Bishop, and there's no way Rangers coach Alain Vigneault will give the hook to Henrik Lundqvist. Cooper went as far as to say it's "asinine" to even bring it up.
"I just don't think you get here to this point in the season and even into the playoffs without having a goaltender, a guy that bails you out when you need to be bailed out," Cooper said. "Ben Bishop has bailed us out some games. Have we bailed him out? Sure we have, sometimes. But for the most part, Bishop has been rock solid for us. Especially for a kid that's not played in an NHL playoff game before [this season], there is a brighter light on him, and all he's done is passed every test that gets sent his way. The tighter the game has got and the more pressure packed the series got, Ben Bishop got better, and you can't ask any more than that."
Bishop has allowed 10 goals in the past two games. Meanwhile, Lundqvist responded with a big, 38-save performance in Game 4 after he allowed a combined 12 goals in Games 2 and 3.
So does Vigneault think the pressure is on Bishop?
"I'm going to worry about my players and get them ready, and I'm sure their [the Lightning] coach is probably doing the same thing," Vigneault said Saturday.
As a team, the Rangers received big performances from key players in Game 4, which can build confidence, especially at this point of the season with a Stanley Cup finals berth at stake. The Rangers' Rick Nash scored a pair of goals, and teammate Martin St. Louis finally chipped one in.
"You're trying to help your team win no matter what," St. Louis said. "Of course, when you score, you definitely gain confidence from it. I'm hoping that I can play with a lot more confidence from that. But at the end of the day you're trying to win games. Some games are just opportunities for you to score, some games there isn't. You're trying to make the best of it when there is."
It was also evident Nash had more spring in his stride, something he showcased on his first goal Friday.
"It's a struggle when you're not scoring," Nash said. "I think it tests you mentally, it tests you emotionally. But at the end of the day, it's not about you, it's about the team and anything you can do to help the team win. If the team's winning, you're obviously happy and smiling."
There weren't many smiles in the waning moments of Game 4. It became nasty. As far as the nastiness, Lightning forward Tyler Johnson wouldn't even address it after Game 4, even though he was on the receiving end of a few brutal slashes. But he was giving it right back.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said.
It's now a best-of-three series, and it should take all the games to decide Eastern Conference supremacy.
"Our overall situation is a little bit better," Vigneault said. "I mean, we knew that yesterday was a very important game. We've evened the series out. Best of three now, and we have home-ice advantage.
"But it's been a really tough series. Every game has been different. First game was tight checking. Second game, special-team units took over. Third game, it was back and forth where there's tons of open ice and both teams are scoring when it's overtime. And last night, from our standpoint, we had a really solid first period. They got momentum in the second and some looks, and our goaltender stood tall. In the third, we were able to get them out of reach with a couple of big power-play goals. So every game has been different. At this time of the year, it's about finding ways to win, and that's what we're trying to do."