Some quick thoughts ahead of tonight’s Eastern Conference Finals matchup between the Lightning and Rangers (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA):
• The key for a Tampa team trying to even this series? Shots and plenty of ’em. Quality is critical—there’s no value in launching from the point if there are no traffic/rebound opportunities—but the Lightning are not going to beat Henrik Lundqvist unless they force him to face a lot of rubber. Outside of Game 2 against Pittsburgh, Lundqvist’s worst performance featured a .931 save percentage. Contrast that to the play of Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, who’s been below that line in nearly half of his postseason appearances (six of 14). He’s been good, but he’s not bringing the unwavering excellence of Lundqvist, who has allowed just one goal in three of his past four games. Look for the Lightning to take every opportunity to get pucks to the net tonight in an effort to break his spell.
• Game 2 could be a referendum on the fairly conservative approach employed by Tampa coach Jon Cooper this spring. His team won’t just be in a two-game hole if it loses. It might need to re-rack its entire approach.
Say what you want about the value of defense at this time of year, but the Bolts can’t out-defense the Blueshirts. If this plays out as a series of 2–1 contests with plenty of strangled play in the middle and few genuine scoring chances, then New York is the team that moves on, and probably in no more than five games. Tampa Bay can’t win that way. And not just because it’s New York's game but because it’s not theirs.
The Lightning can play some D. The additions they made to their blueline and bottom six made sure of that. But this team is at its most dangerous when it pushes the tempo and creates chances off the rush. There wasn’t much of that going on in Game 1, so watch for it tonight. If the Rangers shut them down again, Cooper will have to make adjustments, including finding a place for Jonathan Drouin in the lineup.
The coach has made some pointed comments to explain why the third pick in the 2013 draft is cooling his heels in the press box. “There’s more than one net in the rink,” Cooper told reporters. “You have to be able to play in front of both of them.” That's true, and entirely in keeping with his conservative game plan. But at some point Drouin’s strengths—speed, hockey sense, the ability to execute plays few others could even imagine—have to be weighed against the contributions of others currently in the lineup. Could he not bring more to the table than Brenden Morrow? What about Vladislav Namestnikov?
If the Lightning are going to come back in this series, they need to focus on scoring. Drouin deserves his chance to help them do that.
• The thing that struck me after re-watching Dominic Moore’s Game 1 winner was the play of rookie winger Kevin Hayes in the moments leading up to it. Hayes was tangled up with Ryan Callahan to the left of Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop when the puck was dumped behind the Lightning’s net. Hayes broke free and beat Callahan to it, then held off the veteran as he circled behind the net before spinning around to throw the puck on goal. That sequence right there featured just about everything you want in a player: quick feet, determination, strength, a good read and the smarts to get the puck to the net.
Hayes has only four points in the postseason, a disappointment even in a spring filled with 2–1 games like that one. Still, when you see a moment like that it makes sense that coach Alain Vigneault bumped him to the top unit with Derick Brassard and Rick Nash for Game 1. Based on Sunday’s practice he’ll be back on that line tonight where, hopefully, his playmaking will help Nash break out of his two-year long postseason slump.
• Every spring you can count on one guy using the big stage to prove that that he’s so much more than anyone expected. For me, that player this year is Jesper Fast.
Coming into the playoffs as a fourth liner, the Rangers rookie was viewed as having speed and skill, but maybe lacking in the size and determination to make the most of his gifts at the NHL level. But as New York has progressed, Fast has shown that there’s more to his game than a pair of quick feet. His defensive awareness has been outstanding, and that earned him Vigneault’s trust. It also made him a prime candidate for more ice time when Mats Zuccarello went down. Promoted to the third line—and later, the second—Fast has not only driven the pace of New York’s attack, he’s making plays to ignite the offense. Look back at Derek Stepan’s OT winner in Game 7 against the Capitals. It was Fast who made the simple but smart play of retrieving a loose puck along the boards and tapping it back to his blueline. There was no assist for his effort, but the play doesn’t happen without him.
You can see Fast’s confidence growing with each passing game, and at this point he may have Wally Pipped Zuccarello. If the veteran winger does make it back into this series, it probably won’t be in his usual role. Given the way Fast has played, it’s hard to imagine him being pulled from that sizzling second line.
The numbers game
• Ducks netminder Frederik Andersen now has a postseason mark of 9-0 at Honda Center, an NHL record for the longest home winning streak to start a career. In regular season play, Andersen and Montreal’s Bill Durnan share the record for fastest 50 wins (in 68 appearances.)
• A California-based team is in the Western Conference Finals for the sixth straight year and 10th time in the last 12 years. The Ducks (4) and Blackhawks (5) have appeared in the West finals more often than any other teams since 2003.
• Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has allowed one goal or fewer goals in 20 of his 31 career career playoff victories at Madison Square Garden (1.27 GAA, .954 SV%, 5 shutouts).
• Mike Babcock could make a decision about his future as soon as Wednesday, and it’s expected to come down to these five teams.
• Jon Cooper’s atypical path to the NHL has the Tampa Bay coach uniquely prepared to handle the challenges of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
• “I don’t understand why all of a sudden my age is an issue just because I got hurt and I missed a big chunk of the season,” said Zdeno Chara, the Bruins’ 38-year-old defenseman. He may not like it, but age catches up to everyone. It’s up to him to prove that he still deserves to be considered one of the best after looking like anything but this season.