Eastern Conference Final: Never Say Die Rangers look to crash Lightning party in fascinating series

Igor Shesterkin leads the upstart Rangers into the Conference Finals against Andrei Vasilevskiy and the two-time defending champion Lightning. Photo by Rangers

There’s no rest for the weary. At least in the case of the Rangers, they has one day off to prepare for the Lightning in a fascinating Eastern Conference Final that begins later tonight on Broadway.

Indeed, it’s the upstart Blueshirts challenging the two-time defending champion Bolts in the Conference Finals. The winner advances to play for the Stanley Cup.

It doesn’t get much bigger. The stakes are high. This time, the Rangers are big underdogs. This isn’t the Penguins or Hurricanes. It’s the championship caliber Lightning, whose Cup experience is well documented. Until they’re defeated, no team is better prepared to win it all.

We’re talking about a potential dynasty here. In battling back from a 3-2 series deficit to beat the Maple Leafs in the first round, they once again showed why they’re the champs. Their postseason success doesn’t allow them to panic. After sweeping the rival Panthers in epic fashion, they’ve won 10 playoff series in a row. A remarkable accomplishment in the salary cap era.

That they were able to reel off the last five wins without clutch center Brayden Point (lower-body injury) speaks volumes about how great a team they are. Even if he doesn’t return for this round, they still boast proven stars in Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and the game’s best goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Boasting such clutch performers along with a strong supporting cast that features Ryan McDonagh, Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat makes them very tough to beat in a best-of-seven series. When you throw in deadline additions Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel to a deep roster that includes Erik Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev, Ross Colton, Corey Perry and Pat Maroon, it’s no wonder they’re like Michael Myers, Jason and Freddy Krueger.

You can’t kill them off. Just ask the Leafs and their suffering fans, who again are wondering what their team has to do to advance past the first round. They were in good position to eliminate the Lightning, even leading by a goal until Kucherov forced overtime on a five-on-three goal. Tampa would win the elimination game on Mr. Overtime, Point’s goal in sudden death.

Then they shutdown Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and the rest of the high powered Maple Leafs’ offense to oust them 2-1 in Toronto. A pair of goals from Paul and 30 saves from the ever clutch Vasilevskiy allowed the Lightning to win a challenging seven-game series.

Many observers including myself couldn’t wait for the Battle Of Florida. But unlike last year’s very nasty and closely fought first round won by the Bolts in six games, they outclassed the Panthers by winning four straight to return to the Conference Finals over a week ago.

In fact, they outscored the high scoring Cats 13-3 in a shocking sweep. Vasilevskiy was at his absolute best in stopping 151 of 154 shots to post a ridiculous .981 save percentage. He was unbeatable.

It didn’t matter that the Panthers boasted a great offense with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau headlining it. They simply didn’t play the kind of style necessary to go far in the playoffs.

The Lightning are willing to sacrifice by winning the board and puck battles in the trenches. They finish checks and dive to block shots. That’s what makes them so tough. They learned the hard way when the Blue Jackets swept them in a shocking first round upset. Since then, Jon Cooper’s team have become the perfect model on how to construct a winning roster.

Can they be beat? Sure. It won’t be easy. Throw out the season series that saw the Rangers win all three meetings. It means nothing. If that stuff really mattered, they would’ve rolled the Penguins in the first round and lost to the Hurricanes in the second round.

Instead, they got off the mat to come back and beat the Pens from a 3-1 deficit. In the process, they made NHL history by becoming the first team in the postseason to ever rally from such a deficit and trail in all three elimination games before winning. Artemi Panarin won it on a power play goal in overtime after Mika Zibanejad tied it.

They couldn’t figure out how to win at Carolina for three games of what really had been a home ice series. But they never panicked. Barclay Goodrow returned to help provide a spark in a Game Six win at MSG. A game where Filip Chytil scored twice and was a standout player.

Having Igor Shesterkin certainly has helped them reach this point. The unflappable 26-year old netminder who’ll win his first Vezina, which will be revealed soon, has proven why he’s considered one of the game’s best goalies. Although he now has the big game experience to go along with a tremendous regular season, he knows who he’s up against. He called fellow Russian Vasilevskiy the best goalie in the sport. Until proven otherwise, that’s true.

Without Shesterkin, the Rangers aren’t here. He was outstanding in a first period controlled by the Hurricanes, who did everything but score. Despite giving up a pair of power play goals to Adam Fox and Chris Kreider, the Canes easily could’ve been tied or even up after the first period. Igor was the difference making several big saves with his best coming on Teuvo Teravainen, who was robbed six seconds following Kreider’s goal that made it 2-0. That toe save will be replayed for a while if Shesterkin can help lead the Rangers to the upset and win the Cup.

Of course, that’s a long way off. The Lightning are easy to admire. They have high character players and well respected stars who play the game the right way. That doesn’t mean they won’t mix it up. They will. They have Perry and Maroon for that along with their version of Ryan Lindgren in Cernak. Kucherov is known for playing with edge when things aren’t going his way. They’re the champs for a reason.

If you think the Lightning won’t get some leeway from the refs, you’re sadly mistaken. They have a great reputation. This isn’t to say the officiating will be a factor. However, we’re talking about a proven winner. They’ll get the benefit of the doubt over the Rangers, who are new to the party. Of course, they have to play their game as Gerard Gallant likes to say. But they’ll also want to avoid unnecessary penalties this round.

Let’s just say the Lightning aren’t a team you want to put on the power play. They are the polar opposite of the anemic and overly predictable Hurricanes. The weapons Kucherov, Stamkos and Hedman provide can be lethal. Especially if you give Kucherov time to set up shop at the right circle. He dictates what happens.

One thing I’ll also add on the Bolts is they will take undisciplined penalties. They did during the 82-game season and have at times during the playoffs. However, they’ve had some enormous penalty kills that gave them momentum. Similar to the Rangers, who have been strengthened by the returns of Tyler Motte and former Lightning two-time Cup winner Barclay Goodrow. That grit makes a difference.

The interesting thing is that the Lightning have found good replacements for Goodrow, Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman. They added both Paul and Hagel at the trade deadline. Paul is a very good checking center who is a shorthanded threat. Hagel is a tenacious worker who can chip in as well. His status is still uncertain for Game One. But he did skate yesterday.

While we know about the bigger names who get it done for the Bolts, keep an eye on Colton. He’s been scoring better all year. It looks like another hidden gem they found late in the draft is becoming a player you must pay attention to. So far in this postseason, Colton AKA Ross The Boss (credit to PurpleBolt18) has five goals. None were bigger than his last second crusher on a brilliant feed from Kucherov to stun the Panthers to win Game Two. They never looked back.

When they can have the very battle tested Perry who’s still chasing his second Cup, playing in a support role where Cooper makes good use of him on the power play where he remains a pest, that explains why Tampa is so hard to beat. Add in Maroon, who’s trying to win his fourth straight Cup, and it defines their depth and experience.

How do the Rangers match up? For starters, they boast some star talent that have gotten them here. The trio of Zibanejad, Fox and Shesterkin have really delivered in key moments. So has true captain Chris Kreider. You had to figure he’d come through when it mattered most on Monday night. His two goals including the brilliant rush and power move finishing off the Hurricanes. Fifteen goals in elimination games places him second all-time in NHL Playoff history behind Mark Messier (16). Amazing stuff.

What about Andrew Copp? The guy I wanted before the deadline has been money. He’s fit in well on the second line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. In fact, it’s the good Copp who leads the way with 12 points (6-6-12). That’s one ahead of Panarin, who’s obviously battling through an injury. At least he looked better in the final two games last round. They’re gonna need him to win this series.

Frank Vatrano has also been solid while mostly playing on the top line with Zibanejad and Kreider. His speed and shot make him a threat. With the third line that features first round picks Alexis Lafreniere, Chytil and Kaapo Kakko going well, don’t expect any changes unless Gallant has to. He doesn’t like to mess with chemistry, but will adjust in game if things aren’t clicking.

If there are two big factors that have had an impact on their run, it’s the play of both Ryan Lindgren and Jacob Trouba. There’s no question that Lindgren being able to return against the Pens fueled their comeback. He battles as hard as anyone. Even with whatever is ailing him, the warrior will come back from the locker room after taking a beating and give whatever he can to help the team win.

As for Trouba, his physical brand of hockey is well known by now. An honest player who will step up and deliver clean hits to opponents, the rugged defenseman is a big key to the team’s success. When he is more instinctive and plays his game, Trouba can really impact games. Just ask Sidney Crosby and Seth Jarvis. Here’s hoping Jarvis will be okay.

There’s two areas Trouba must clean up in the Eastern Conference Final. The turnovers in his end. He can sometimes be forced into giveaways by an aggressive forecheck. He also has a penchant for taking bad penalties. Something he must limit versus the opportunistic Lightning. They will need him out there at five-on-five and on the penalty kill. He can also be a bit scary on the power play. He’s not exactly great at keeping pucks in.

Partner K’Andre Miller remains overlooked. While he’s getting notoriety for how he’s handled the heavy minutes and tough assignments, the second-year defenseman is an important player. The top four wouldn’t be the same without his strong skating and ability to recover to break up plays with his long reach. He has taken the body more in the Spring. He’ll need to be steady against the Lightning for the Rangers to pass the test.

How does the Rangers’ top four compare to the Lightning? I’d say it’s about even. If you like smooth skating, offense and skill, both Fox and Hedman provide that. They anchor each defense. Fox is a bit better now on offense as his 18 points (5-13-18) suggest. Hedman is more of a physical force due to his size.

If there’s an edge, it’s Cooper having former Ranger McDonagh to draw the big match-ups. He is superb at five-on-five and on the penalty kill. You want to talk about a beloved former player. That’s Mac. I enjoy watching him play. Just not when he’s going up against our team. He’ll see plenty of Zibanejad and Kreider.

I would expect Hedman and Cernak to be matched up against Panarin. McDonagh pairs up with Zach Bogosian. A solid veteran who is strictly used at even strength for checking assignments. Cooper prefers to use Sergachev on the third pair to balance out the blue line.

In terms of third pairs, we know about Justin Braun and Braden Schneider. Braun gets around 11 to 12 minutes while Schneider sees less. It’s a good thing Chris Drury sent a third round pick to the Flyers for Braun. Patrik Nemeth should never see the light of day again. Braun is more of a stabilizing influence which has helped Schneider, who will pick his spots to step into opponents. He’s the better skater whose future is bright.

While Gallant leans heavily on the top four, Cooper is similar with one exception. By having his third good skating left defenseman in Sergachev play third pair, it allows him to have three skating defensemen who can log over 20 minutes. He pairs up with Cal Foote. A solid skater who can step up. At times, Cooper will play Sergachev more in search of better skating. Even though I feel he can be attacked, Sergachev adds a nice wrinkle. If he opts for seven D and 11 forwards, it’ll be Jan Rutta. That is an alignment Cooper used without Point versus Florida.

How do the lineups look on paper? I’m going to assume Hagel will be ready for tonight.




















Having outlined what the projected lineups will likely be with Cooper probably opting for the 11 forwards/7 defensemen alignment without Point, what does it come down to?

Obviously, the goaltending is a huge key. This is a great match-up. The proven winner in Vasilevskiy, whose got the hardware and accomplishments to one day reach the Hockey Hall Of Fame. He is challenged by the new face in Shesterkin, who has already established himself as an elite goalie that can steal games. Goals should be hard to come by.

Personally, I’ll be intrigued by seeing how Zibanejad does against Stamkos. I have so much respect for Stamkos. It’s great to see him back in form after some tough injuries that sidetracked him. Zibanejad has been splendid so far. His 18 points and clutch goals have led the Rangers’ offense.

Fox and Hedman are two of the game’s best at their position. Hedman is a lot like Vasilevskiy in that he’s established. Fox is the new kid on the block who’s been superb offensively. His overall game was better against the Canes. Plus you have the Doberman’s in Lindgren/Trouba and McDonagh/Cernak.

Where it might tilt in favor of the Bolts is the dynamic Kucherov, whose game is made for the playoffs. He’s been amazing for his postseason career. At over a point-per-game, Playoff Kuch makes it happen. He doesn’t shy away from physicality and has that tenacity.

This series is where Panarin must step up. He can’t be average. That means stronger on the puck, less giveaways and better compete. Regardless of the upper-body injury, he has to show a willingness to make plays by being more instinctive. That means not hesitating. Shoot the puck if it’s there and make crisp passes. Smarter decisions.

They can get more from the Panarin line in this match-up. Especially with Copp performing well. Strome has quietly been effective at getting shots and fishing for loose change in front. But Panarin makes that line go. It’s up to the Bread Man to deliver.

The wildcard remains the Chytil line. Flanked by the very effective Lafreniere, whose strength on the boards and ability to make plays with loose pucks, they have been a good line on the forecheck. Kakko is the player who must be visible. He picked up an assist on a Chytil put away the other night and came close to scoring. Here’s hoping that bodes well.

I’ve highlighted Colton for the Lightning. A young player who can finish. Perry also is good in front of the net where he’ll be looking for deflections and rebounds. That’s what makes him a former MVP. Killorn has been relatively quiet. But Palat has picked it up. A good skater who has speed, he shouldn’t be underestimated. Neither should Paul, whose checking and versatility has come in handy since Point went down.

The Rangers could have an edge with the combo of Motte and Goodrow, who both play the game with lots of grit. It’ll be interesting seeing Goodrow face his former team. Don’t forget how valuable he is on the penalty kill. He knows their tendencies. He will also need to be better on face-offs than that 3-for-20 in Game Seven. Goody is better than that.

Face-offs remain an area of importance. We know the Rangers aren’t good at winning them. Don’t lose the zone draws cleanly. Tampa can run set plays. It’ll be up to Zibanejad and Goodrow to win their fair share.

How much will having home ice matter? I don’t put much stock in it. Not unless there’s a deciding Game Seven. We also must remember who the opponent is. It’s the Lightning. Even if it goes seven at The Garden, there’s no guarantee here. I am not gonna bring up the last one versus this team. What a nightmare.

Of course, having the home crowd can help lift the team up in these games. They’re all big now. One thing I’d suggest is not falling behind. Get a lead. They can’t lose the first two games. It would be nice to see them win Game One and lead a series for a change.

The team that executes better at five-on-five and on special teams will prevail. It also will come down to which side can get traffic on the goalies. That means getting greasy goals. Whether on tips, deflections or rebounds, that will really matter.

Discipline. That can’t be stressed enough. Both teams boast weapons on the power play. Each penalty kill is capable. You don’t want to chance it.

Hustle plays. This is where the grit factor comes in. Finishing checks. Winning the puck battles. Forechecking. Key defensive plays like coming back to break up scoring chances and blocking shots. The stuff we don’t always see on the score sheet. That can decide these games.

I feel like the intangibles is even. We know what the Lightning are trying to do. They’re out to prove they can make history. Their experience and hunger is unquestioned. The Rangers have the look of a team that doesn’t go away. Five for five in elimination games. They never quit. They’re like Rocky. I loved that Kreider quote about them being like cockroaches. That’s who they are under Gallant.

As for coaching, I feel like you have to give the edge to Cooper. He’s a great coach. Look how he was able to adjust against the Leafs and what they did to the Panthers. He’s a winner who’s had success everywhere. Gallant is no slouch. He took the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first year. He’s been successful and probably learned a lot after Vegas mistakenly fired him. He has the right temperament for this team. They take on his personality.

Normally, I do these previews differently with breakdowns and a series prediction. I’m going to be honest. I am not up to picking a winner. Maybe I don’t want to jinx it. I do feel the Rangers have a chance against the Lightning. But I would rather just enjoy the series without making a pick.

I know how that sounds. It’s very unlike me. No bravado. I don’t know who will win. But I think it’ll be a great series. Whatever happens, it’s been a heckuva ride. Let’s enjoy these games. Nobody had the Blueshirts here. It was possible. But the way they did it is pretty cool.

Ric Flair always says, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.

Here’s their chance. Defeat the champs and it could be a very memorable June. Let’s Go!!!

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 Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
This entry was posted in NYRangers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.