Rangers pushed to brink by Panthers after 3-2 loss in Game 5

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The comeback kings now face their biggest obstacle this season, pushed to the brink of playoff elimination after the Florida Panthers edged the New York Rangers 3-2 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.

The Rangers trail this best-of-7 series 3-2 after losing their second straight game Thursday. If the Blueshirts are to reach their first Stanley Cup Final since 2014, they will need to win Game 6 on the road Saturday and then follow up with a win at home in Game 7 two nights later.

In NHL history, the team that’s won Game 5 when a best-of-7 series tied 2-2 has gone on to win the series 79 percent of the time.

“It was a good effort, but you wanna win,” Adam Fox said. “Now we just gotta go there and get one, and give ourselves a chance to come back here and win a Game 7.”

Tied 1-1 in the third period, Anton Lundell gave the Panthers their first lead of the game at 10:22. Sam Bennett added an empty-net goal to make it 3-1 before Alexis Lafreniere gave the Rangers hope with 50 seconds left in regulation.

Sergei Bobrovsky was terrific in the win for Florida, finishing with 25 saves, including on all 11 shots he faced in the first period, when the Rangers were at their best. Bobrovsky has allowed two goals or fewer in 12 of 16 games in these playoffs.

Bennett had a goal and an assist for the Panthers and Gustav Forsling scored their first goal.

Igor Shesterkin was excellent again for New York, making 34 saves. Chris Kreider scored for the Rangers and Mika Zibanejad had two assists.

“It was a tight game. Chances were probably pretty much even,” Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said. “It goes to the third period and they got one.”

Related: Panthers star gets hurt before Game 5 vs. Rangers even begins

Florida Panthers 3 – New York Rangers 2

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers came out strong and played, perhaps, their best period of the series in the opening 20 minutes Thursday. They had sustained zone time, didn’t get pinned deep by the Panthers forecheck and had an 11-8 shots advantage.

The one thing they didn’t do was score in the first period, though the Rangers held the Panthers off the scoreboard as well. Filip Chytil had a good scoring chance at 8:30 when he got behind the defense, but Bobrovsky made a sharp pad save. Late in the period, New York had it’s best chances, when Vincent Trocheck had a partial breakaway. Bobrovsky made an outstanding blocker save and then made a pad stop on a rebound after the puck hit a backchecking Aleksander Barkov.

Florida’s best chance in the scoreless first period came at 12:40, when the puck bounced out in front to a wide-open Bennett, who patiently waited and the sent a backhand shot off the post.

The Rangers broke through first early in the second period, when Kreider got a bit of redemption after a rough start to this series. Kreider scored on a shorthanded breakaway at 2:04, following a turnover at the Rangers blue line by Matthew Tkachuk.

That the turnover was made by Tkachuk and the goal was scored by Kreider was a neat counter to their incident in Game 4 when the Rangers veteran snatched the mouthguard out of the mouth of the Panthers forward and threw it up in the air after a post-whistle scrum.

On Wednesday, Tkachuk joked that he told Kreider, “that was the best play he made all game.” So, it was a payback moment for Kreider, who scored his eighth goal of the playoffs and picked up his first point of the series.

Zibanejad assisted on the goal for his first point in the conference final, as well.

The Rangers now have six shorthanded goals in these playoffs, tying a franchise record set in the 1979 postseason. They’re the first team with as many shorthanded goals in a single postseason since the Detroit Red Wings had six in 2008.

The Panthers answered back and tied the game at 8:21 of the second period. Bennett froze the Rangers defenders inside the blue line and made a perfect pass to a cutting Forsling, springing the defenseman alone in front. Forsling’s backhand shot hit Shesterkin’s pad and went into the net, his second of the series and fourth of the postseason making it 1-1.

Florida outshot New York 13-7 in the second period and came out flying to start the third. Shesterkin was called on to make huge saves early on against Lundell, Dmitry Kulikov and Eetu Luostarinen to keep the score tied.

Bobrovsky then came through with a trio of big saves, including clutch ones on a Rangers power play against Jack Roslovic and Alex Wennberg. And the Panthers rewarded their goalie shortly thereafter.

Lundell beat Shesterkin under the right arm off the rush with a left-wing wrist shot at 10:22 to make it 2-1 Florida. Though former Rangers forward Vladimir Tarasenko didn’t get a point on the goal, he played a big part charging to the front of the net, pushing the Rangers defense back and partially screening Shesterkin.

Fox came close to tying the game at 13:35 with a sneaky shot through traffic that required a difficult right-pad save by Bobrovsky. Moments later, Shesterkin answered back by robbing Sam Reinhart from out front.

Shesterkin was pulled for the extra attacker with 2:36 remaining in regulation. But Bennett danced around Trocheck and rifled a right-wing shot into the empty net with 1:52 to play to give the Panthers a 3-1 lead.

However, the game wasn’t over just yet. Lafreniere deflected Zibanejad’s shot into the net at 19:10 and the Blueshirts were back within a goal. Yet, there wouldn’t be another shot, much less a goal, for the Rangers, and the Panthers moved to within one win of their second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Rangers have prided themselves on their ability to handle adversity and forge comebacks all season long. This is their biggest challenge and stiffest test yet.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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