By Sean Hartnett
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The Tampa Bay Lightning pushed the Rangers to the brink of extinction by beating them at their own game.
The Lightning went into Madison Square Garden on Sunday night and put on a defensive clinic, clogging shooting lanes, taking away second opportunities, and forming a wall in front of goaltender Ben Bishop, blocking 24 shots on their way to a 2-0 victory.
For the most part, Bishop went untested. The majority of the 6-foot-7 netminder’s 26 saves were routine. He didn’t have to break much of a sweat to earn his second career playoff shutout. If the Rangers are to extend this series to a seventh game, they’re going to have to make life a lot more difficult for Bishop.
It was rare to see the Rangers force Bishop to move from side-to-side. The Blueshirts possessed the puck enough, but they just weren’t able to spread the Lightning and make Bishop really work.
“The only problem I had with tonight’s game is offensively,” alternate captain Derek Stepan said. “We worked extremely hard to get the puck back. We didn’t do a very good job of managing it in the sense of making plays and chipping pucks in.”
The Lightning tend to win games in high-scoring, quick-strike fashion. But on Sunday, they proved they’re equally capable at grinding out disciplined victories in low-scoring affairs.
“This game was a big one,” Tampa defenseman Anton Stralman said. “We definitely want to take a lot of things out of this game. It’s about defense first. We really executed tonight.”
How bad is the Rangers’ power play? Well, it’s gotten to the point where it’s killing their momentum.
The Rangers went 0-for-4 on Sunday night, mustering a grand total of four shots in the process. Only 32 seconds separated two second-period power plays, but the Rangers only managed a combined two shots.
Stepan was clearly frustrated by his team’s inability to make anything happen with the man advantage.
“We worked extremely hard to get the puck back on the power play, then just poor decisions with it,” Stepan said.
All the more alarming, the Blueshirts had been 6 for 15 on the power play heading into Game 5. But the fact that the unit quickly reverted to its feeble worst should be particularly disheartening to Rangers fans. Following Sunday night’s game, head coach Alain Vigneault was clearly frustrated.
“Our execution was a little bit slow tonight on the power play,” Vigneault said. “Because it was slow, it made it easier for them to defend. We didn’t get many looks on it.”
The reason for the outage is really simple. Throughout the postseason the Rangers have searched for that extra pass when they haven’t needed it. What they need to do is start firing the puck as often as possible at Bishop, get him moving from side-to-side and make him scramble.
“We’ve got to test the goalie more than we did tonight,” captain Ryan McDonagh said. “We were looking to make that one extra play a lot of times. If it’s not working and you sense it’s going to be a tough night to score, you’ve got to throw more pucks to the net and take away his eyes.”
The Rangers need to go away from their umbrella approach and instead use a more basic strategy to get Bishop out of his comfort zone. Just throw the puck at the net on instinct, get bodies to the blue paint, use D-to-D passes get Bishop moving, get someone in front to block his vision and positioned for tip-in and rebound opportunities.
The Rangers’ stagnant offense didn’t give Henrik Lundqvist a chance in Game 5. The power play is going to need to show up in Game 6 to give Lundqvist any chance to do what he does best in deciding games.
Over the past four years, Lundqvist is 6-0 in Game 7s, but the Rangers first need to find a way to get him there.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey