The Rangers and Lightning produce an amazingly even matchup on paper, not to mention the fun storyline of many players facing their former teams. Who comes out of the East?
WHAT WE LEARNED IN ROUND 2:
NEW YORK RANGERS: These Broadway Blueshirts are a resilient bunch. They are the first team in NHL history to rally from a 3-1 deficit and win a playoff series two years in a row. They did it in round 2 against the Pittsburgh Penguins last year and again against the Washington Capitals this week. New York didn’t always look like the better team against the Caps but managed to weather countless, hard-forechecking storms and counterattack. New York used its best asset, team speed, to give Washington fits in transition. There was simply no answer for the wheels of Carl Hagelin, Kevin Hayes and especially Chris Kreider late in the series. We also learned in round 2 that, while defensemen Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle can still move the puck with the best of ’em, neither has held up well battling enemy forwards in the trenches.
TAMPA BAY: The hallmark of a good team, one we’ve picked to win the Stanley Cup, is winning in many different ways, and the Bolts did that in round 2 against Montreal. They relied on mostly great goaltending from Ben Bishop – and a goal that
shouldn’t have counted – to win Game 1. They blitzed Carey Price for six goals in Game 2. Despite being a dominant possession team all season, they got badly outchanced and outshot in the middle of the series, yet still walked away with a win in Game 3 with just 19 shots. And, in the clinching Game 6, offensive stars Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov delivered backbreaking goals. The Lightning have won ugly, they’ve won pretty and they’ve won tough. Their blueline also looks as strong as it has all season with Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison healthy.
MVP SO FAR:
NEW YORK RANGERS: Henrik Lundqvist gave a fantastic interview with Cassie Campbell immediately after his Rangers won Game 7 in overtime. To paraphrase, he said he couldn’t count on the white-hot Braden Holtby to falter in the Washington crease, so it was up to him to outduel Holtby. Lundqvist, a future Hall of Famer, relished the challenge and delivered. He surrendered just five goals in the final three games with New York’s back to the wall. Since two of those wins came in OT, Hank did it in 200 minutes, amounting to a 1.50 goals-against average. He had a save percentage of .931 or higher in every game against Washington. Most importantly, he made a handful of saves early in Game 7’s extra frame when the Rangers looked petrified in front of him. There’s just no way they’re still alive without Lundqvist. They average a pathetic 2.00 goals for the post-season, good for 15th among 16 teams. Luckily Hank’s GAA is 1.60.
TAMPA BAY: Little firecracker Tyler Johnson continues to be Tampa’s best forward and all-around player this post-season. His eight goals lead the league and his 12 points place him third overall. He did his damage in the first half of the Montreal series, with four points in the first three games, including the Game 3 buzzer-beater. Johnson also centers what has been the best all-around line in the regular season and the playoffs. His wingers, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, killed the Habs.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
NEW YORK RANGERS: 1. What does Martin St-Louis have left in the tank? He struggled in the second half of the regular season and has no goals in 12 games through the first two rounds. Age appears to have hit him all of a sudden, and the Rangers will have no motivation to re-sign him this summer unless he shows he has some fight left. His shot attempt differential in close situations is a team-worst minus-15 for the playoffs. Maybe a battle against his old team, however, will reignite his fire. 2. Will Boyle, 38, return in time for Game 1 after a devastating hit from Brooks Orpik knocked Boyle out of Game 7 against Washington? His wobbly demeanor after the hit had the trappings of a concussion, and he also got his bell rung on a blow from Nicklas Backstrom in Game 1. The bigger question is: do coach Alain Vigneault and the Rangers want Boyle back in the lineup, even if he’s healthy as can be? He’s been a liability more often than not over the first two rounds and has been caught time and again shying away from contact. Is Matt Hunwick the superior option at this point? 3. How much longer does Rick Nash get a pass? He wasn’t a zero against Washington. He generated a bunch of scoring chances, he lit the lamp once and we all know he’s a strong two-way presence. Still, though. Two goals in 12 games after 42 in the regular season. In his Rangers career he has six goals in 49 playoff contests. Tampa’s best players were its best players against Montreal, and the Rangers need that to happen for them in round 3.
TAMPA BAY: 1. Steven Stamkos’ struggles were the talk of the Detroit series in round 1. ‘Stammer,’ however, ended round 2 on a five-game point streak, exploding for three goals and seven points over that span. It appears he’s back in a big way. If he can stay hot, which isn’t exactly a tall order considering it’s Stamkos, the Lightning are that much more dangerous. 2. Ryan Callahan missed Game 6 against Montreal after an emergency appendectomy. Miraculously, though, he’s back skating with the Bolts already and has a shot to play in Game 1. He could be a true difference maker in this series, as his bludgeoning forechecking can give the Rangers’ less gritty defenders like Boyle and Yandle fits. If he returns too early, though, will he still be able to do what he does best? Callahan and Brian Boyle, two of the most physical Tampa forwards, will be intriguing to watch against their former team. 3. Ben Bishop outplayed Carey Price again and again and again this season, save for a hiccup or two. Can he do the same against Lundqvist? The latter, like Price, doesn’t have a Stanley Cup, but Hank has far more big-game experience, and he’s at his absolute best with the game – and his team’s season – on the line. He’s won a league-record six consecutive Game 7s. Bishop’s .931 SP this post-season shows how great he’s been, and he’s delivered in clutch situations of his own. The deeper Tampa goes in the playoffs, though, the more important it is Bishop stops allowing soft goals. It still happens to him on occasion.
WHAT THE STATS SAY by Dominik Luszczyszyn:
NEW YORK RANGERS: The Rangers were one of the highest-scoring teams during the regular season, but they’re cooling off big-time in the playoffs. They should bounce back to normal eventually, but it doesn’t really matter because Lundqvist has stepped up his game to offset that. The margins have been thin in every Rangers game so far as each one has been decided by just one goal, so having one of the best goalies in the league is a huge edge. New York was seen as a puck-possession underdog before the playoffs started but has held its own against very good possession teams. If the Blueshirts can continue that trend against Tampa Bay, the edge in goal should be enough to reach the Stanley Cup final.
TAMPA BAY: The Lightning have been one of the most disappointing teams in the playoffs so far, yet here they are in the third round. The Lightning were the league’s best possession team going into the playoffs, yet were dominated in that department by the Canadiens, who were one of the league’s worst. Bishop was the lone bright spot in the series, but it’s a risky venture to depend on that alone. The team simply isn’t generating enough shots, and that’s turned its dynamic offense into a mediocre one. That’s the Lightning’s identity, and it must change if they want to beat Lundqvist and the Rangers.
KEY MATCHUP by Dominik Luszczyszyn:
Nash and Stamkos are two of the game’s best goal scorers, and getting them out of their funk will be a necessity for each team in this series. The pair has been struggling to find twine with two and three goals, respectively, which isn’t anywhere close to their lofty standards, though Stamkos enters the third round heating up. This season, Stamkos outscored Nash but was less impressive at 5-on-5 and on a per-minute basis – much of that from a higher than usual shooting percentage for Nash. Both players had exceptional goal-scoring seasons, and it’s likely their luck changes in this series, as neither player is one that gets held off the scoresheet for long.
PREDICTION: Lightning in seven.