TAMPA -- For two games, the Tampa Bay Lightning had the New York Rangers manically spinning their heads, gasping for their breath and searching for answers to questions they had never faced before.
It happened in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final. It happened again in Game 3. The Rangers were simply unable to stop the Lightning's top players from being their best players. It was somewhat shocking coming from a team as structured, sound, smart and skilled as the Rangers, who thrived all season on shoving their speed game right down the throats of the opposition.
So they entered Game 4 on Friday at Amalie Arena with a crystal clear understanding that without a big response from the best they've got they would be in a hole too deep to dig out from. What happened next changed the storyline in this unpredictable series that is now a best of three.
The Rangers responded with a 5-1 victory to tie the series at 2-2. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was at his very best; this may have been his best performance of this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs. Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis finally broke out of their scoring slumps. The power play connected for two more goals, a feat that's becoming the norm for the Rangers.
The Lightning had their surges, but the Rangers limited them and responded when they needed to.
"It's important you realize in the big moments that we all have to step up," Lundqvist said following his 38-save performance that sent the series back to New York for Game 5 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports) all even. "I felt like the entire team stepped up."
That Lundqvist, Nash and St. Louis played starring roles made the difference.
Nash threw the first punch at the Lightning with his goal at 17:18 of the first period to give New York a 1-0 lead.
This was the regular-season Rick Nash, the one who has been MIA in the playoffs, the one that used his size, strength, skill and soft hands to score 42 goals.
The goal was a thing of beauty. It was Nash showing all of his tools in going around Alex Killorn and Cedric Paquette before beating Ben Bishop with a backhand off a sweet move.
"That first goal by Nash; that's the way he scores his goals, taking the puck to the net and just showing how strong he is and the speed he has," Lundqvist said. "That was great to see. It kind of set the tone for us."
Nash scored again in the third period because he was standing in front of the net on the power play and got to a rebound.
Nash has to go to the net. He has to play on the inside. And he knows it.
He saw on film that he wasn't doing enough of that. He said he was trying, but he just wasn't getting there. He made it his point of emphasis Friday, and the difference was noticeable.
"I've been trying to make that a priority in the game, and I found [myself] a few times just kind of on the outside taking shots," Nash said. "I was trying to bring it to the net a bit more [Friday]."
Lundqvist knew he had to do more Friday as well.
Following Game 3, he openly questioned his decision making, positioning and ability to read and react when the Lightning zipped the puck around the zone. He figured he was playing OK; however, OK at this time of the year against any team, let alone one with the skill that the Lightning have, is never going to be good enough.
So he played great instead, especially in the second period when he was at his very best with 18 saves. He was beaten only on a one-timer by Steven Stamkos that likely would have gone in against any goalie in any era.
"I felt like I was in good position. I was patient," Lundqvist said. "When they had their big chances, I was on my feet and I was reading the situations better. If you're not doing that, you get exposed and they can put easily four, five goals on the board. But that's why it's so important to stick to your game plan and not overthink it."
Lundqvist was overthinking himself after Game 3. He said he spent the time in between Games 3 and 4 walking around thinking about what went wrong; he talked to goalie coach Benoit Allaire about why, and how to fix it.
He credited Allaire for guiding him.
"It's been good to have probably the best goalie coach in the world to talk to about a situation like this," Lundqvist said. "I played 12, 13 games where I feel like I'm at a level where I'm really helping the team, and then you have two games where I think I'm OK against a really good team, and then you look really average.
"So it was a little soul-searching and also talking about my game and what I could do to have better results. And I think in the end I made a few adjustments, and it really paid off."
Then there was St. Louis, Mr. Positive. He entered the game with no goals in the playoffs, but thinking his next goal was somewhere locked in his stick and he just needed to find the key.
Just get one, he kept saying. Just get one and they'll come. Just get one and the weight will be lifted. Just get one and, poof, freedom.
St. Louis finally got one, on the power play at 5:08 of the third period to put the Rangers ahead 4-1. His reaction was telling for how big a weight fell off his shoulders. The words he screamed can't be used in this article.
"It felt good," St. Louis said, smiling, almost as if he knew he was selling his celebration short. "I mean, you score a goal, you get a second wind, you're not as tired. The feeling is great, and I think the rest of your game sometimes just comes together after that."
The Rangers can only hope there is more to come, because they're going to need it. The Lightning aren't going away. They will score more goals in this series. They will continue to test the Rangers' defense and Lundqvist.
They will get Grade A chances like the ones they got Friday, when they had breakaways and 2-on-1s, open looks from the low slot and shots ringing off the post. The Lightning dominated all but 5:34 of the second period; however, the Rangers scored twice in that span to take a 3-1 lead into the third, when Nash scored his second and St. Louis his first to put the game away.
Make no mistake, the Lightning had the Rangers' spinning their heads and frantically chasing the game for a good portion of Game 4. It didn't matter. The Lightning couldn't stop the Rangers' top players from being their best players. That's all that mattered.