By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — There’s no panic in the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions are down 2-0 to the New York Rangers in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal but remain confident they have what it takes to climb back into the best-of-seven series.
“Nobody’s expecting us to win a conference final 4-0,” forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said Saturday.
Game 3 is Sunday at Amalie Arena after the Rangers dominated the first two games at home.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper cited poor puck management, as well as the lack of a sense of urgency in his team’s play, as factors contributing to Tampa Bay losing consecutive playoff games for the first time in three years.
And while the coach was encouraged by the way his team responded during the second half of a 3-2 loss in Game 2, Cooper stressed the defending champs still have “better in us.”
“At some point you might lose two in a row in the playoffs. The fact that we haven’t for how many years is remarkable,” Cooper said after the Lightning’s NHL record of 18 consecutive wins in games following a postseason loss came to a screeching halt Friday night.
“Did it knock us out of playoffs? It did not,” Cooper added. “Do we have a hill to climb? There’s no question.”
But the Lightning feel they have the talent, as well as the resiliency and leadership, to overcome a sluggish start to the series.
“We played with a little bit of desperation,” Cooper said of the way Tampa Bay nearly wiped out a two-goal deficit in the closing minutes of Game 2. “For us to get back into the series, we’ll need a lot more of that.”
The Rangers have won six of their last seven games while outscoring opponents 28-13. They’ve gone on to win 11 of 13 series all-time after holding a 2-0 lead.
The Lightning face a two-game deficit in a playoff series for the first time since 2019, when they were swept by Columbus in the first round. They also wound up being eliminated after falling behind by two games in series in 2014 and 2018.
The Rangers are two wins away from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, but don’t want to get head of themselves.
“It’s real exciting but we were on the other side of it when we were down 2-0 (to Carolina in second round), so I think it’s a good lesson for us not to take our foot off the gas,” Rangers forward Adam Fox said.
“I think we’ve done a better job of playing on the road as the playoffs have gone along,” Fox added. “So, I think it’s important for us to carry on how we’ve been playing (at home) on the road, obviously try to play the same style of hockey.”
New York’s Kid Line of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko continues to shine, and goaltender Igor Shesterkin has outplayed Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy in helping the Rangers remain unbeaten against the Lightning (5-0, including regular season).
“He’s unreal. … Every game he has a number of highlight-reel saves,” New York’s K’Andre Miller said after Shesterkin had 29 saves to Vasilevskiy’s 25 in Game 2.
“Obviously, (the Rangers) have a lot of trust in him, let him do his thing, try to limit the chances he sees by blocking shots, doing those little things,” Miller added. “But Shesty’s Shesty, he’s going to stop the puck.”
Despite having the upper hand in the matchup through two games, the Rangers goalie is sticking with his pre-series statement that fellow Russian Vasilevskiy is the best at his position in the world.
“Currently I don’t think that really matters. … You can’t forget that the series is to four wins,” Shesterkin said. “We just have to keep playing.”
AP Sports Writer Vin A. Cherwoo in New York contributed to this report.
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