Rangers vs. Lightning 2015 Eastern Conference Finals preview
Nov. 17: Lightning 5, Rangers 1
Nov. 26: Lightning 4, Rangers 3
Dec. 1: Lightning 6, Rangers 3
Lightning: F Ryan Callahan (day-to-day, appendectomy)
Can anyone stop The Triplets? The line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat has been the most valuable of the playoffs, accounting for 17 of Tampa Bay’s 34 goals. They were off-and-on against the Canadiens, but still managed to light up Carey Price for 10 goals and 17 points. Their speed, net drive and puck skills make them the top assignment for New York’s defense. Steven Stamkos torched the Rangers during the regular season (2-5-7 in three games), but questions about his health have dogged him throughout the postseason. He is coming off a lively performance in Game 6 vs. Montreal though. We’ll see whether that was an aberration or a sign that his legs are finally back underneath him. His linemate Alex Killorn has quietly contributed nine points, topping everyone on the Rangers. Killorn’s ability to get wrangle loose pucks in all three zones has keyed that line’s possession time.
Ryan Callahan is the X Factor. The first-line winger lost a body part on Monday (alright, he underwent an appendectomy), but it’s the playoffs. He’ll play in this series, possibly as soon as the opener. He’ll bring a strong physical game against his former team.
The Rangers have been offensive scavengers, clawing for scraps rather than setting the table. They’ve been held to two goals or fewer in 10 of 13 playoff games, so the last thing they want to do is get in a track meet with the Lightning. Derick Brassard and Chris Kreiderhave five goals each to pace New York’s attack. Rick Nash is mired in another one of his postseason slumps. A 42-goal scorer during the regular season, Nash has been held to two this spring, giving him a total of seven in 53 career playoff games. At this point, it’s probably better to focus on everything else he brings to the team and take any offense he provides as a bonus.
Martin St. Louis will play a big part in the narrative heading into the series based on his fractured relationship with the Bolts. Whether he plays a big part in the series is a dicier proposition. He hasn’t scored a goal in these playoffs and has done little to suggest that he’s ready to bust out of his slump. Maybe the sight of old friends will light his fire. If not, the Rangers will need someone to step up. Jesper Fast might be an answer.
New York’s defense, ranked a steadfast third during the regular season, has grown even stingier in the playoffs, allowing only 1.67 goals per game. But what kind of shape are they in? Ryan McDonagh took a few hard hits in Games 6 and 7 vs. the Capitals and looked worse for wear. Dan Boyle was knocked into next Tuesday by a Brooks Orpik elbow in Game 7 and is questionable. Keith Yandle has had his moments, but he’s a turnover waiting to happen. Those question marks put a lot of pressure on Marc Staal and Dan Girardito step up in this series.
The Rangers could really use a guy like Anton Stralman right now, but their former teammate will be wearing a different shade of blue for these tilts. Tampa’s key add in free agency has been a stabilizing presence on their back end, dominating possession time and freeing up Victor Hedman to use his speed and puck skills to trigger the attack. Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison have combined to form a dangerous second pair. Garrison adds some offensive pop. Coburn brings the pain. As a unit, they allowed the Canadiens to take too many shots but when it mattered most in Game 6 they were able to shut the Habs down completely for better than 10 minutes. If that’s what they bring to this series, Tampa will be a tough out.
Henrik Lundqvist is flat out nails. The Rangers keeper plays with no margin of error—New York has played 14 straight one-goal playoff games—and yet he consistently delivers the goods. His numbers are ridiculous: a 1.60 GAA and a .944 save percentage. In the last three games against Washington, with his team facing elimination, Lundqvist allowed just five goals on 110 shots. At this point, he’s probably the co-favorite for the Conn Smythe along with Anaheim’s Corey Perry.
Ben Bishop was more lucky than good in the last round, visibly struggling with his mechanics early in the series, but he came up big when it mattered most in Game 6. He lacks the experience of Lundqvist (this is his first go-round in the playoffs), but his 1.81 GAA and .931 save percentage prove that he’s handled the challenges well. Now can he take it up a level? Bishop doesn’t have to be better than Lundqvist for the Lightning to win this series. He just has to keep his team in the game long enough to let the offense do its job.
The Lightning were 7-for-20 on their power play in the second round, with four of those goals coming in their 6–2 Game 2 win that turned the series irrevocably in their favor. Even when it’s not clicking, the unit boasts a frightening array of weapons. Kucherov is tied for the league lead with five power play points and is second with three goals.
It’s almost unfair to judge the success of Tampa Bay’s penalty kill given Montreal’s staggering ineptitude with the extra man, but the Bolts had to do more than just show up to kill 15 of 16. Their ability to limit zone entries will be a key to shutting down the Rangers.
New York’s penalty kill was a difference maker against the Caps, who scored just once on 15 chances after leading the league in power play success during the regular season. The Rangers blocked a lot of shots to make life easier on Lundqvist, but it was their ability to prevent Washington from setting up in New York’s zone that made the difference.
Their own power play has been pedestrian, clicking at 15.4%. With goals at a premium, they need something from this unit if they hope to advance.
If you’re an acolyte of the advanced numbers, you’ve got some ’splainin’ to do. Both the Rangers and Lightning were soundly out-possessed in the last round, but they managed to advance just the same. That might speak to their opportunism, their puck luck and the unreliability of small samples, but still it’ll be interesting to see how possession plays into this series.
To their credit, the Rangers are doing a better job of generating shots (32.2 to 27.3) while the Bolts are succeeding via suppression (27.7 to 29.6).
You have to be impressed by the resilience of the Rangers, who just became the first team in NHL history to rebound from a 3-1 series deficit in back-to-back years. And with King Henrik in net, anything seems possible. But the Bolts are a different animal than they’ve faced so far, one that’s deeper offensively and can negate whatever speed advantage New York enjoyed in the first two rounds. This one should go the distance ... and the Rangers Game 7 streak will end here.
Lightning in 7.
|Game 1||Rangers 2, Lightning 1||Recap||Highlights|
|Game 2||Lightning 6, Rangers 2||Recap||Highlights|
|Game 3||Lightning 6, Rangers 5 (OT)||Recap||Highlights|
|Game 4||Rangers 5, Lightning 1||Recap||Highlights|
|Game 5||Lightning 2, Rangers 0||Recap||Highlights|
|Game 6||Rangers 7, Lightning 3||Recap||Highlights|
|Game 7||Lightning 2, Rangers 0||Recap||Highlights|