For a few minutes Sunday, the Rangers seemed to have sewn up their first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in eight years.
With about 10 minutes remaining in the second period, Chris Kreider scored a power play goal that gave New York a 2-0 lead in Game 3 of its Western Conference Finals series with the Tampa Bay Lightning. All the Rangers had to do was hold that lead for 30 minutes and they would have had a commanding three-games-to-none lead in the series.
Of the 198 times a team has fallen behind 3-0 in an NHL playoff series, only four times has it rallied to win four straight games. That’s how sweet the Rangers’ position was with 10:16 remaining in that second period. But then things began to go wrong. Jacob Trouba got a penalty for interference, Nikita Kutcherov scored a power play goal, and the defending champs rallied to win, scoring the game winner with 41 seconds left to halve the Rangers’ advantage in the series.
To some extent, that’s just what Tampa Bay does. Before this series, the Lightning hadn’t lost two playoff games in a row in three years.
Where do things stand now?
It’s anybody’s series, obviously, but the Rangers still have a considerable advantage. Money Puck, an NHL analytics site, puts the Rangers’ current chances of advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals at 58.4%. Oddly, Money Puck gives the Rangers the better odds in the series, but the Lightning the better chances to win it all. It pegs the two-time world champs with a 13.4% chance of winning the Cup again, a tick better than the Rangers’ 13.1% probability.
Presumably, that’s because the site thinks the Lightning match up better with the Avalanche, who have a three-games-to-none lead on Edmonton heading into Game 4 Monday night.
The bookmakers see things in a similar light. The Rangers and Lightning have remarkably similar odds to win the Stanley Cup. PointsBet is offering the best Rangers Stanley Cup odds among New York’s mobile sportsbooks at +425. The same book is offering the Lightning at +435. The Avalanche, who have been burying their opponents the past few weeks, are viewed as prohibitive favorites at this point, with the best odds being -192 at BetMGM.
Are the Rangers a good bet to topple the Lightning at this point? If we use the Money Puck 58.4% probability, the answer is, “Yeah, sort of.” BetMGM is the only New York book offering a series price, and the company has put the Rangers at -152, an implied probability of 60.3%. That’s below the Money Puck probability, but the operators almost always build a house advantage into the odds, and that is far from an outrageous hold.
Tampa-bound, but not down
The series shifts to Tampa Bay Tuesday night with the Rangers as considerable underdogs, with odds as good as +150 in New York (at DraftKings and PointsBet).
The Rangers’ strengths are a power play that ranked fourth in the NHL and goalie Igor Shesterkin, who made a whopping 49 saves Sunday to keep the Rangers in the game. They’ll continue to try to play to those advantages, but the venue becomes a bit of a concern in two of the next three games. The Rangers are just 2-6 on the road these playoffs and have been out-shot away from Madison Square Garden by a per game average of 36-28.
Tampa Bay’s 52 shots on goal set a new team postseason record on Sunday, so it’s reasonable to assume the Rangers will spend a lot of time trying to shore up their defense going into Game 4. The Rangers certainly don’t seem intimidated by Tampa Bay, considering they still have beaten them in five of the six meetings this season and have outscored them 21-11 in those games.
It’s a bit of a cliché to call a playoff game “critical.” Aren’t they all? But Tuesday’s game has massive hinge potential. The Rangers could squarely regain control of the series with two games left at home, where they thrive. A loss turns it into a best-of-three series and, as discussed, the Lightning are particularly adept at rebounding from bad games.
It still seems like a series the Rangers could steal, which would make for a banner day for their fan base and a tough one for the sportsbooks, which almost always have liabilities with New York teams.
Photo: Kim Klement/USA TODAY