#Rangers need heroic efforts from stars to pull off comeback

“Rangers need heroic efforts from stars to pull off comeback”

TAMPA, Fla. — The Rangers need a hero Saturday night. More than one, in fact. They need their best game in order to keep the dream alive. They are going to need more than they’ve shown since the middle of Game 3 in order to send this series back to the Garden for a potential showdown Game 7 on Tuesday. A lot more. 

If it is all about will and determination, the Rangers will be fine. If it is all about self-belief, the Blueshirts have no worries. But there’s more to it than that. It is going to take more than will and belief to knock the two-time champs off their pedestal. The Blueshirts need to get on the attack and make life much more difficult both for Tampa Bay’s physically imposing defense corps and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. 

The Rangers need to assert themselves as if they’re playing Pittsburgh, as if they’re playing Carolina. Enough of being respectful of their opponent. 

The Blueshirts need to bring it. They need to nudge the Lightning out of the mental comfort zone into which they have settled since escaping with their crucial Game 3 victory. In order to do that, the Blueshirts are going to need to change the dynamic and the look they throw at Tampa Bay after having scored four goals total — and one at five-on-five — over the last 198:39 of hockey. 

And that is exactly what head coach Gerard Gallant has in mind. He answered, “Yes, definitely,” when asked if he were considering changing things up for this sixth potential elimination game his team will confront. 

Artemi Panarin
Artemi Panarin has been more active after his early-series struggles.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Artemi Panarin has emerged from the tortuous internal soliloquy he’d been conducting in his own gray matter through much of the first two rounds to become the team’s most dangerous forward. He has looked like himself. It is time for Gallant to hook up Panarin with Mika Zibanejad, whose game and whose line have been stifled since midway through Game 2. 

I foresee this partnership taking hold next season if the hierarchy — and that’s general manager Chris Drury — recognizes the need to remodel the second line into a more physical, hard-edged unit that can be utilized in a shutdown checking role. That will have to wait, of course, but there is no time like the present to unite Zibanejad and Panarin. 

The Zibanejad line, with Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano on the flanks, has had all sorts of trouble when matched against Anthony Cirelli’s checking unit. At home for Game 5 with the last change, Gallant could have done constant switching on the fly to negate that matchup. But that is not his way. And that is not the way in which to display confidence in Zibanejad, who is the club’s showrunner, and was on against Cirelli for about two-thirds of the time. 

“It’s a good team and I think any line you go up against is going to be a tough matchup,” said the Swede, who has been held without a point the last two matches. “When it becomes that obvious that it’s that line against us — I know they’re good and have a ton of respect for them — you want to win your matchup. 

“Speaking for our line, we’ve been here before, even the Carolina series where we didn’t get that much five-on-five against the [Jordan] Staal line, but it’s a new game [Saturday], obviously a challenge, but a fun one to talk about. 

“I enjoy it,” said Zibanejad, who has 24 points (10-14) in 19 games. “It wouldn’t be as much fun if it wasn’t tough and wasn’t a challenge and if you didn’t go through the ups-and-downs. It’s another test for us.” 

Whether it is the correct strategy or not, Gallant has been sheltering the Kid Line, thus limiting the minutes for Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko. But if the coach indeed is going to shake things up, it is likely that third line will become a casualty. That may well lead to a shift to the wing for Chytil, which is where he lined up successfully for Game 3 against the Hurricanes. 

Mika Zibanejad looks to pass during the Rangers' Game 5 loss to the Lightning.
Mika Zibanejad looks to pass during the Rangers’ Game 5 loss to the Lightning.

Panarin is going to play his game, but the Blueshirts, as mentioned by Zibanejad, are going to have to adopt more of a northern directional approach. That’s Tyler Motte’s game. That’s also Alexis Lafreniere’s game, even as No. 13 has not scored since the fifth game of the opening round. The Rangers have not forced Tampa Bay to pay a substantial physical price in this series. A hard forecheck can go a long way toward that end. 

The Rangers have done this five times before, but not against a two-time defending champion. There is this, though, too — the Lightning lost potential clinchers five times during their pair of Stanley Cup runs. So, despite the number of times in this series I have referred to the Lightning’s special qualities, they are not invincible. 

But it will take the utmost from the Rangers to win this one. They will need to be at their best. They need a hero … or five.

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