The New York Rangers spent the first three months of the season building up a strong record with limited exposure against some of the NHL’s elite teams.

On New Year’s Eve, they passed their first test against the Tampa Bay Lightning and seek another win against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.

New York has racked up 44 points while playing only a smattering of games against the East’s top three teams of Washington, Tampa Bay and Florida Panthers, posting a 2-2-0 mark. The Rangers’ only game against a top-three team in the West was a 3-2 shootout loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Dec. 17.

Just 3-4-1 in their past eight games since a seven-game winning streak Nov. 21-Dec. 7, the Rangers bounced back from Wednesday’s 4-3 loss at Florida by outlasting Tampa Bay for a 4-3 win on Friday when Barclay Goodrow scored twice against his former team and Mika Zibanejad scored the only goal in the shootout.

“We’ve fared pretty well against teams that are out of a playoff spot, or below us in the standings,” Goodrow said. “But against teams that are above us or considered one of the top teams, we haven’t fared so well.”

New York coach Gerard Gallant said, “beating some of those teams, it’s important for us … gives us confidence, know you can play with the big guys. Point-wise, we’re right with them, but we still got to play better and get a 60-minute game and get better every day.”

Tampa Bay is visiting the Rangers for the first time since Oct. 29, 2019. The Lightning has lost consecutive games for just the third time this season and has lost three in a row only once — an 0-2-1 stretch Oct. 19-25.

The Lightning had won nine of 10 and seven straight at home before Thursday’s hard-to-believe 9-3 loss at Florida. On Friday, Steven Stamkos scored a power-play goal and set up Corey Perry’s game-tying goal in regulation against the Rangers before Tampa Bay was unable to get the extra point when Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Brayden Point were unable to score in the shootout.

“There are some games you play, and you leave with two points and you’re like, ‘We may not have deserved both points,'” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “And there’s some games you feel like you deserved both points and you only get one or none. Tonight I thought we deserved two. We came away with one, but it wasn’t that which was the point — it was, ‘How are we going to respond?’ And they responded.”

Brian Elliott started in goal Friday and made 20 saves after exiting the COVID-19 protocol. Andrei Vasilevskiy remained in the protocol after being placed there on Dec. 26, and Elliott will likely start again Sunday.

Tampa Bay is 6-1-1 in the past eight meetings.

–Field Level Media