For the third time in the past four seasons, the New York Rangers will appear in the Eastern Conference Final. In the process, they became the first team in NHL history to have come back from a 3-1 playoff series deficit two years in a row. They crawled back in it against the Washington Capitals in the second round and they accomplished the same feat last season against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Rangers will face the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are making their first appearance in the Eastern Conference Final since 2011. That time, they lost in seven to the Boston Bruins. Tampa hasn’t been in the Stanley Cup Final since 2004, where they won the ultimate prize. At that time, Martin St. Louis and Dan Boyle were part of the roster. Both men now play for the Rangers.
It took the Lightning 13 games to reach the Eastern Conference Final. It took the Rangers a dozen games. Both teams have put in work, both teams have trailed in previous series, and both teams have seen some serious playoff success when coming from behind. Tampa took down the Rangers in their regular season series, winning all three games by a combined score of 15-8.
The New York Rangers have been rolling four lines all season long and that’s not about to change now. Coach Alain Vigneault has shuffled the deck from time to time in order to get the right combinations and he’s more than ready to adjust on the fly. One move was to shift Jesper Fast up on a line with Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan. The move paid off and led to the series-winning goal from Stepan.
Kreider led the way for the Rangers in the second round and they’ll be looking for more from the 24-year-old. He has five goals in a dozen playoff games, scoring four of them against the Capitals. He had two in the first period of Game Six and came up with the tying goal in Game Five, so he’s been able to cash in for big moments.
The Rangers will hope for more from Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis. Nash has been taking lots of shots at least, leading the team with 45. He had six shots in Game Seven, but he’ll have to start converting sooner or later. He only has two goals in the playoffs thus far and will need to give his linemates a boost. St. Louis has yet to score in a dozen games and has 23 shots on goal to go with four assists.
Tampa’s famed “Triplets” line has been leading the charge. Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat have combined for 17 goals and 14 helpers. Johnson has eight goals in the post-season so far, while Kucherov has six – all against the Canadiens in the second round. Palat has eight points, with three goals. Two of those are power play goals.
If there’s a problem for the Lightning, it’s in the disappointing play of Steven Stamkos. He has a point in the last five games and has 10 points in 13 playoff games, but there seems to be something off about his game. Tampa has done some shuffling on his behalf and he’s been playing wing while Valtteri Filppula centres. Alex Killorn has fleshed out their line with nine points in 13 games.
There’s also the not-so-small matter of Ryan Callahan. He had an emergency appendectomy that left him out of Game Six against the Habs, but he was also skating on Thursday and could be a factor. He went to New York with the team and the Lightning have him listed as day-to-day. Callahan plans on increasing his workload and could be ready to go at some point in the series, which would be great news for Tampa.
The Rangers have received a lot from captain Ryan McDonagh, who has anchored the blueline. He has two goals in a dozen games, both of which are game-winners. He logged nearly 30 minutes of ice time in Game Seven and is partnered with Dan Girardi, one of the smartest and most prepared defencemen in the entire league. Girardi was matched against Alex Ovechkin and did the job with 48 blocked shots.
Marc Staal hasn’t exactly had good possession numbers, but he hasn’t exactly spent a lot of time in the offensive zone either. The Rangers have relied on him on the penalty kill and in defensive situations, but that could change against the Lightning if they need to activate their D. Also, Kevin Klein and Keith Yandle will have to be more consistent.
Tampa finally has a fully healthy group of defencemen, which is a nice change from when the post-season began. Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman have led the way with balanced ice time and often stellar play. Both are steady defenders and both will continue to draw tough assignments, plus Stralman’s tendency to get involved offensively will come in handy. He has five points in 13 games and 30 shots on goal.
Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison comprise the second pair and they’ve been physical, to say the least. Coburn actually had the series-winning goal in Game Seven against Detroit in the first round, too, and is capable of coming up with some surprises. Garrison brings that booming shot from the point and can certainly get involved.
King Henrik Lundqvist has been everything he’s needed to be and then some. He’s well inside the conversation for the Conn Smythe after two rounds and is New York’s best player. Lundqvist has a 1.60 goals against average and a .944 save percentage, the best stats among goalies playing past the first round. And he wins when he has to. He’s unbeatable when his team’s against the ropes and when his team can clinch a series.
Ben Bishop has been good for Tampa and he seems to get better when he sees more rubber. He has a 1.81 goals against average and a .931 save percentage over 13 games. He had a shutout in Game Seven against the Red Wings, making 31 saves in the process, and he’s made big critical saves at the right times. He had a poor showing in Game Four against the Habs, but he’s also shown resilience and can bounce back after errors.
This could be a fast series on the ice, as both teams are capable of picking up the tempo. The Rangers have the defensive zone edge, but Tampa could pull off a few surprises. If they get Callahan back sooner than later and they get a good run from Stamkos, the Lightning could strike. But the Rangers are a complete team and can cope with adversity. Plus they’ve got a decent goalie, I guess.