Game #9 Lightning versus Rangers Preview

Tyler Johnson

Later tonight, the Lightning pay a visit to MSG against the Rangers. Tampa enters fresh off a 3-1 loss to the Devils in Newark. They fell behind 3-0 before Tyler Johnson broke Cory Schneider’s shutout. Backup Andrei Vasilevskiy took the loss in his third start.

The Bolts have plenty of firepower. Featuring captain Steven Stamkos who leads them in scoring with nine points (5-4-9), Johnson (2-2-4) , Alex Killorn (team high 6 goals), Nikita Kucherov (1-6-7), Ondrej Palat (1-3-4) Jonathan Drouin (2-3-5) and Valtteri Filppula (3-2-5), they are loaded up front.

However, Kucherov didn’t play last night due to an undisclosed injury sustained in a loss at Montreal Thursday. The talented Russian scorer likely won’t be available. So, that’s a break.

Old friend Brian Boyle returns. I’m sure the boo birds will be out since he did injure Ryan McDonagh in the past with a big hit that sent him flying into the boards. Tampa also has reliable checkers Cedric Paquette, J.T. Brown and Vladislav Namestnikov. Brayden Point is also someone to watch.

The blue line is anchored by the All-Star tandem of Victor Hedman (1-4-5) and Anton Stralman (3 assists). Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr are in the top four. Braydon Coburn also remains along with Nikita Nesterov.

If there’s an area that can exploited, it’s Tampa’s D. Honestly, after Hedman and Stralman, they can be attacked. Coach Jon Cooper leans heavily on his top Swedish pair. The Rangers’ speed up front could be an issue for a team playing its third game in four nights and a back-to-back.

Ben Bishop gets the start. He’s always fared well against the Rangers. But he isn’t facing Henrik Lundqvist and is off to a slow start with three wins despite a 3.22 goals-against-average and .891 save percentage in five starts. He is a big goalie who can be moved side-to-side. They must obscure his view and make it hard for him to see the puck.

Antti Raanta finally gets his second start. It’s about time. Nothing against Lundqvist, who’s off to his usual slow start (4-3-0, 2.45 GAA, .901 save percentage). But Raanta has to play. He should’ve gotten the start at Carolina saving Lundqvist for tonight. Not that Hank was to blame. His defense was culpable on at least two goals with Kevin Klein and Marc Staal getting beat badly and Nick Holden and Jesper Fast screening him out on the winner. Dan Girardi battled Bryan Bickell in front. What were Holden and Fast doing?

Anyway, the Blueshirts look to get back on track against one of the favorites to come out of the East. Chris Kreider will miss his fourth straight game due to neck spasms. He could be ready Tuesday which would certainly be a nice boost given his hot start. His seven points (3-4-7) still are tied for second in team scoring. Hopefully, he won’t show too much rust when he returns.

A positive in the 3-2 loss the other night was the play of Pavel Buchnevich, who in his return picked up his second NHL point- assisting on Mats Zuccarello’s power play goal. The Russian rookie continues to look like he belongs. So, he’ll stay put with Mika Zibanejad and Zuccarello. When Kreider comes back, what happens? It’s a win win situation.

Scoring isn’t the problem. With much better depth thanks to Jimmy Vesey and Brandon Pirri, coach Alain Vigneault is able to roll four lines more easily. There’s a three-way tie for the team lead in goals with four each coming from Pirri, Vesey and Zuccarello. Zibanejad meanwhile leads in points with eight (2-6-8). Rick Nash is up to 3-2-5 since being put with Derek Stepan and J.T. Miller (2-4-6), who performs well with anyone. Stepan has five assists but is still without a goal. He can use one.

Kevin Hayes has looked better but still only has two goals and a helper to show for his improved skating. They need more production from him. Maybe it improves once Kreider returns, which means he gets another skill player. Either Miller or Zuccarello are likely candidates. Michael Grabner could then shift back down to the fourth line with Jesper Fast, who might stay with Hayes due to his defensive acumen. Though I wouldn’t mind seeing what Grabner could do due to his speed with say Hayes and Miller.

As for Oscar Lindberg, he barely plays. It’s like Vigneault is unwilling to trust him which is amazing considering his production was on par with Hayes last year. I don’t get it. Lindberg is a big body who is willing to go to the net and wins face-offs. He’s a perfect fourth line center capable of killing penalties. Yet only gets around 13-14 shifts all at even strength. It doesn’t make much sense.

The back end remains an issue. Holden has gotten progressively worse. He’s only serviceable on the penalty kill and he messed up on the game-winner Friday. His ice-time has been cut down. When exactly does Adam Clendening get back in? A much better skating D who plays the right side and can play power play. Hopefully, it doesn’t become another McIlrath.

Vigneault is a quality coach. So, it’s not about him not having success. But some of the situations he’s created are perplexing. He never had any use for McIlrath even though he showed to be capable in his rookie season. But that’s the coach, who prefers that fast moving puck possession style emphasizing quick transition leading to offense.

We’ll see how they respond tonight against a quality team.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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