The waiting is over. Following two days off in the aftermath of an emotional Game 7 second round win over the Caps thanks to Derek Stepan’s overtime heroics and Henrik Lundqvist’s brilliant goaltending, the Rangers are set to face a familiar foe in the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. The fun starts today for a Game 1 at MSG on NBC at 1 PM.
Let’s delve into the match-ups.
FORWARDS: The Rangers likely will be without Mats Zuccarello again. He’s started light workouts but it doesn’t sound optimistic. They’re led by center tandem Stepan and Derick Brassard who are tied for the team lead with eight points. Rick Nash (2-5-7) is third. Is this the series he breaks out? Chris Kreider has been money scoring four of his five goals in Round 2. Martin St. Louis faces his former team. How will he respond to Alain Vigneault’s benching. Despite three helpers last round, he’s still without a goal in 12. J.T. Miller saw time on the top line. He set up rookie Kevin Hayes’ tying power play goal. The kids stepped up. Jesper Fast had four points against Washington. Miller had assists in Games 6 and 7. Carl Hagelin was held without a goal. His speed was a factor along with faceoff specialist Dominic Moore, who moved up to center the third line. Tanner Glass and James Sheppard have been dependable.
The Lightning boast the league’s best offense. Steven Stamkos (3-7-10) is the headliner. He came to life scoring a goal in the final two games against Montreal. Coach Jon Cooper shifted him to wing with Ryan Callahan out. Callahan (appendectomy) returns because of course he would versus his ex-team. Alex Killorn (3-6-9) is a overlooked complement. What makes Tampa scary is the ‘Triplets’ line. Anchored by Conn Smythe candidate Tyler Johnson (8-4-12), they are dangerous with Nikita Kucherov finding his finishing touch by scoring six goals against the Canadiens. Ondrej Palat (3-5-8) is underrated. Their ability to skate and forecheck could pose a problem. Tampa also boasts playmaker Valtteri Filppula and familiar checking pivot Brian Boyle (32 hits, 87-and-75 on draws). He’ll be pumped for this. Cedric Paquette, J.T. Brown, Nikita Nesterov are support players. Jonathan Drouin has only gotten in three games.
DEFENSEMEN: Ryan McDonagh anchors the best blueline that’s left of the Final Four. The Rangers captain hasn’t been great but remains a steady influence who Vigneault leans on in every situation. His Game 5 overtime winner kept the season alive following Kreider’s game-tying goal with 101 seconds left. McDonagh and partner Dan Girardi will draw the big assignment against Stamkos. If the Johnson line gives Marc Staal and Dan Boyle problems, might Vigneault switch his top tandem against them? Girardi is more needed to shadow Stamkos on the Tampa power play. Similar to Alex Ovechkin. Keith Yandle had 2 big assists during their comeback but remains shaky. Kevin Klein needs a better series. He now has seven games under his belt.
Victor Hedman is the other big name defenseman in this series. Thus far, he’s been brilliant with a goal, five helpers and a plus-seven rating. Former Blueshirt Anton Stralman has been a rock going 1-4-5, plus-four so far. Last summer, Glen Sather let Stralman walk opting for ex-Lightning ’04 Cup hero Boyle. Obviously, Stralman has more left. Braydon Coburn is physical but can be exploited. Matt Carle is a solid skating D. Andrej Sustr can be attacked. Jason Garrison has a potent shot. Their D largely depends on Hedman and Stralman. Coburn needs a good series.
GOALIES: Henrik Lundqvist continues to amaze. Now 10-0 in the Rangers’ last 10 home elimination games and having won six straight Game 7’s, what more can be said about the franchise goalie? He’s backstopped the club to consecutive comebacks from 3-1 down. He went goal for goal against Braden Holtby allowing 12 to Holtby’s 13. He’s 8-4-0 with a 1.60 goals-against-average and .944 save percentage. He faces a stiffer challenge against some dangerous Lightning shooters.
Ben Bishop has never lost to the Rangers. He’s a perfect 8-0 in the regular season dating back to his Ottawa days. Of course, he was in for all three Lightning wins in the first half. In his first postseason, Big Ben has been tremendous posting a 1.81 GAA and a .931 save percentage with a Game 7 shutout of Detroit in Round 1. He’s a big netminder who takes up a lot of space. The Rangers must move him laterally to have success.
COACHES: Both teams feature good coaches. The Rangers with Jack Adams candidate Alain Vigneault who after guiding them to the league’s best record, was the calming influence that kept them focused in rallying from a 3-1 second round deficit for a second consecutive year. He made some key adjustments flipping Moore and Miller while daring to bench St. Louis the final 10+ minutes of regulation for the more defensive minded and faster Miller. Vigneault is proven.
Jon Cooper is an interesting story. A former Hofstra lacrosse player who played one year of hockey, he became a lawyer before turning hockey coach. He coached high school and then in the North American Hockey League before getting his big break with the Tampa AHL affiliate Syracuse in ’11-12 guiding them to the Calder Cup. In his second full year behind the Lightning bench, he guided them to 50 wins and 108 points finishing second in the Atlantic behind Montreal. The Bolts rallied from a 3-2 deficit to beat the Red Wings in the first round and ousted the Habs in Round 2 in six.
Series Prediction: This is too close to call. The Rangers are a different team since the Lightning last saw them in December. Hayes, Miller and Fast have emerged. St. Louis looks to be on his last legs. Yandle gives them a good pass first defenseman who can find the seams. The Lightning are deep, fast and very skilled. They pose a threat. Especially if they can get to Lundqvist. If it’s a short series, the Lightning will prevail in 6. If it goes the distance, the Rangers will win in 7.