The New York Rangers return to Madison Square Garden for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday following two straight wins by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Sunshine State that evened the series at 2-2.
"We're one of three teams left here. You expect their best. You want their best. And we want to show we can beat the best," Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba said. "We feel we're an up-and-coming team. We've arrived. We want to play these games."
What's the greater force: The Rangers' home winning streak, which stands at eight playoff games, or the Lightning's momentum in the series?
Here's our breakdown of Game 5:
Key non-goalie for each team
Rangers: Adam Fox. The Rangers defenseman had his most pedestrian performance of the playoffs in Game 4. He was a minus-3 on the scoresheet and didn't register a shot attempt in 23:44 of ice time. To put that in perspective: This was the only postseason game in which Fox failed to register a shot, and just the third game in which he didn't tally a point -- the other two coming on the road against the Carolina Hurricanes.
The good news is that the Rangers' brilliant young blueliner has feasted on home cooking, leading them with 13 points in nine home games. They'll need more from their back end offensively if their forward group is impacted by injuries, and Fox can provide that. Obviously, a little more power-play time would help: While the Rangers went 1-for-2 in Game 4, they had only 1:15 with the man advantage, when Fox is so effective as a quarterback.
Lightning: Nikita Kucherov. As captain Steven Stamkos told me, the Lightning know when Kucherov is on and it sets the tone for them when he is. The former Hart Trophy winner has become the series' most impactful player. He was on the ice for eight of the Lightning's last nine goals, earning a point on six of them. The goals he has scored have been huge, sparking Tampa Bay's rally from being down 0-2 in Game 3 and adding a critical second goal in Game 4 on a breakaway. His pass to Ondrej Palat to set up the Game 3 winner could be the turning point in the series.
Kucherov is taking this thing over, and the Rangers have to find a way to slow his roll.
Goalie confidence rating
Rangers: 8. This series is now 2-2 despite the best efforts of Igor Shesterkin. Like the rest of the Rangers, Game 4 was not his greatest of the playoffs, but it followed a ridiculous 49-save Game 3 performance. He has been on the positive side of goals saved above expected in every game since Game 6 of the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and remains the backbone of this playoff run.
But again: He has played a lot of hockey in this postseason, with two seven-game series, a game in which he faced 83 shots and a recent one in which he faced 52. Hopefully his Game 4 performance isn't the first inkling that the grind is catching up with him. The best news: He's on an eight-game winning streak with a .948 save percentage overall at MSG. Oh, and with two assists, of course.
Lightning: 8. The Big Cat had his worst game of the playoffs in Game 1 of this series, and was in the negative on goals saved above expected in Game 2. Coach Jon Cooper's theory is that Vasilevskiy was impacted more than the Lightning skaters by their nine-day layoff after sweeping the Florida Panthers. There may be something to that, based on how he played at home. Cooper said Vasilevskiy "got his mojo back" since, and it's hard not to disagree.
That said, the Rangers are a different offensive team at home: They average 4.22 goals per game at MSG vs. 2.44 goals per game on the road. Game 5 will be the "mojo test" for Vasy.
Path to victory
Rangers: The path begins with good injury news on Ryan Strome and especially Filip Chytil, the engine for the team's Kid Line. Strome skated in warm-ups before Game 4 but couldn't go. Chytil was injured on a Victor Hedman check during Game 4; like Strome, he's a game-time decision for Game 5. Both play vital roles in the middle for a team that has generated one even-strength goal since the first period of Game 2. If either or both can't go, it means lineup scrambling for Gerard Gallant.
That established, the next step on that path for the Rangers is to play like they've been playing on home ice: possessing the puck, coming at opponents in waves, earning time for their potent power play. And perhaps most importantly, playing with the swagger that has enabled them to win every home game since losing in triple-OT to the Penguins.
"Best of three. Won two at home. Lost two on the road last time. That's how a series is supposed to be in theory, right? Supposed be able to hold serve," forward Chris Kreider said.
Lightning: There was a lot of talk around the Lightning about a "switch being flipped" midway through Game 2 at MSG. That's when they simplified their game and played with offensive flourish only when they'd earned the zone time to do so, rather than the other way around. The results are clear: They went from 28 giveaways in Game 1 to 22 giveaways in Game 2 to 13 giveaways combined in Games 3 and 4.
They need to continue to limit the Rangers' counterpunching rush chances, limit their power-play time and hopefully get Anthony Cirelli's newly formed checking line with Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn out against the Mika Zibanejad line -- while watching Kucherov and Stamkos work their magic offensively.
Final score prediction: Rangers 3-2
The Rangers are the Harvey Dent of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs -- frequently grotesque on the road, Gotham's white knight at home. I've seen them pull this act for two rounds and eight straight home victories.
The injuries are a concern. The fatigue isn't -- if the Rangers get to play their game. Of course, it's going to look like they're skating in quicksand if they're trailing after two minutes and having to defend more than they attack. I know the narrative is that the Lightning have recalibrated, shaken off the rust and taken control of the series. I've seen the Rangers rewrite too many narratives in this playoff run to assume they won't do it again.