By VIN A. CHERWOO
AP Sports Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — After winning the series opener with an offensive display, the New York Rangers used a strong defensive effort to take Game 2. Now they are two victories away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in eight years.
Mika Zibanejad scored in the third period, Igor Shesterkin stopped 29 shots and the Rangers held on to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 on Friday night in the Eastern Conference finals.
“It’s a huge win for us, but we just get ready for the next one,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. “They way we played the last two games, that’s the way we’re going to have to play to win the series. We want to battle hard, we want to compete hard and we’ve been a tough out so far.”
K’Andre Miller and Kaapo Kakko scored in the first period, and Adam Fox and Chris Kreider each had two assists for the Rangers. New York won its eighth straight home game, extending a franchise playoff record.
“We did a great job limiting them, especially in the first two periods,” Fox said. “We didn’t make too many mistakes. … When we needed those big saves, we got them at the end as usual.”
Nikita Kucherov had a goal and an assist for Tampa Bay, Nicholas Paul also scored, and Andrei Vasilevskiy made 25 saves. The Lightning goalie has allowed nine goals in two games against the Rangers after limiting Florida to three in a four-game sweep in the second round.
“We haven’t executed the proper way that got us here,” Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. “They are a skilled team and make you pay. We found some momentum at the end. We have to carry that over.”
The Lightning lost consecutive playoff games for the first time in the last three postseasons. The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, winners of 10 straight playoff series, were 17-0 after a loss coming in.
“Their team obviously had a good playoff streak of not losing back-to-back games but that’s not really in our minds when we’re coming to the games,” Fox said. “We’re not thinking about what streaks teams have or how they’ve done earlier. It’s right now and we’re just trying to bring it day in and day out.”
The series shifts to Tampa for Game 3 on Sunday and Game 4 on Tuesday night.
Zibanejad extended the Rangers’ lead to 3-1 early in the third period as he got a pass from Fox, skated into the left circle and fired a shot that beat Vasilevskiy high on the stick side at 1:21. It was Zibanejad’s ninth of the playoffs and gave him goals in six of the last seven games.
“It was a big goal, obviously,” Gallant said. “We knew they were going to push real hard. … We battled, we found a way. We’re playing against a real good team over there. They pushed it, we made some key saves at the end.”
With Vasilevskiy pulled for an extra skater, Paul scored in front off a pass from Corey Perry to pull the Lightning within one with 2:04 left.
Vasilevskiy was pulled again for an extra skater when Shesterkin had to make several sprawling saves with about a minute to go.
“You take that third period, remember it, bring it to the next game,” Perry said. “They won at home. We have to go home and take care of business.”
With the Rangers leading 2-1 after 20 minutes, Tyler Motte nearly added to it 3 1/2 minutes into the second period as his backhander trickled through Vasilevskiy’s pads and was on the goal line when Perry dove across to keep it out.
The Rangers outshot the Lightning 14-10 in the scoreless middle period, with most of Tampa Bay’s attempts coming in the last six minutes.
The Lightning got an early power play when the Rangers’ Ryan Reaves was whistled for slashing 2 1/2 minutes into the game. They quickly took advantage as Kucherov fired a shot from the right circle that beat Shesterkin on the glove side at 2:41. It was Kucherov’s fifth of the postseason. Tampa Bay was 0 for 9 on the power play in its previous three games.
Miller tied it a little more than the minutes later on a Rangers rush. He fired a shot from the right point that was blocked by Lightning defenseman Brandon Hagel, but the puck came back to him and he fired another shot that went in off the post at 5:59.
“It was a great all-around play,” Fox said. “Huge goal by Key. It definitely fueled us.”
Motte nearly gave the Rangers the lead with 8 1/2 minutes remaining, but his shot deflected off the goalpost.
Kakko put the Rangers ahead 2-1 as he deflected a pass from Fox past Vasilevskiy from the right doorstep with 2:28 left in the opening period.
Fox leads all NHL defensemen with 17 assists and 22 points in the postseason. … Zibanejad has a seven-game point streak with six goals and 11 points. He has 22 points in the postseason. … The Rangers have 20 goals over their last four games after scoring nine over the previous five.
Kreider has 53 postseason points, taking over sole possession of fifth place in franchise history. … Kreider played in his 96th playoff game, tying former teammate — and current Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh — for fourth place in franchise history.
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