The Tampa Bay Lightning have moved one step closer to their third straight Stanley Cup but will have to deal with the New York Rangers, who defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 6-2 in Game 7 of their series to advance to the Eastern Conference Final, before moving one step closer to that goal. If the Lightning want to reach the Stanley Cup Final, they will have three obstacles in this series to deal with in order to get the chance to win their third straight Cup.
Will Rest Be Good for the Lightning?
By sweeping the Florida Panthers in the second round, the Lightning earned eight days off between games. The biggest question that most teams face with that much of a layoff is, will rest lead to rust? With the Lightning, that will be an interesting question. This is a team that has played a great deal of hockey over the last couple of years. Also, despite the sweep of the Panthers, that series was extremely physical. They took many bumps and bruises in blocking shots not only against the Panthers but also in their first-round victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Players such as Brandon Hagel and Mikhail Sergachev haven’t practiced, giving their bodies a chance to heal. The rest of the team also took two days off before returning to practice last week, something Pat Maroon said was quite beneficial. “It is nice to refresh the mind, get away from the rink a little bit. It has been a heck of a couple of years here. I think some of us sat down, took it all in, and now, we are ready to work. We are ready to go accomplish our goal, and that is to win”
The other factor of the rest is what to do in the practices with so much time in between rounds. At this point in the season, there are only so many drills and other hockey-related tasks that they can do. They have tried to mix things up with some scrimmages, bringing up players from Syracuse to give them the numbers to hold them. Also, head coach Jon Cooper is not sure the rest will necessarily help in other areas. “As much as that there’s this mental aspect that you worry about and the edge and being in the fight and all those things that, naturally, you just lose when you have this much time off.”
Cooper also acknowledged that with a team of seasoned veterans, they should be able to adjust to this time off. The Lightning’s time off, combined with the Rangers’ taxing seven-game series, will definitely be one of the main storylines to watch during this series.
Brayden Point Returning?
Some might think that since the Lightning were able to sweep the Panthers without Point, they probably don’t really need him for the upcoming series. While they can certainly succeed without him, they would be a lot more productive with him in the lineup. In fact, Point led the NHL with 28 goals over the past two postseasons. He is also a solid two-way performer, demonstrated recently by neutralizing Maple Leaf star Auston Matthews, as well as scoring the deciding goal in the pivotal Game 6. He has been listed as day-to-day, and teammates have stated that he has been working out. Unfortunately, he has not skated since the injury.
Corey Perry, Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, and others have stepped up in his absence. But there is no doubt that the Lightning are a better team with Point on the ice. He also provides help in other ways. When he sustained the injury, he refused to leave the bench but remained focused on trying to encourage his teammates while assisting them with in-game strategy.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said of Point: “We know how important he is to our team and the caliber of player that he is and what he’s done in these past couple of runs. He’s got so much respect in the dressing room. He’s a warrior out there on the ice, and he’s working his butt off to come back.”
Shesterkin has looked like his old self after a shaky first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In Games 3 and 4 combined, he allowed 10 goals on 48 shots for a horrendous save percentage (SV%) of .792 as the Rangers fell behind in the series 3-1. He was struggling so much that he was pulled in the third period of Game 4. Very surprising for the Vezina Trophy nominee who finished the regular season with a .935 SV%. Of course, he has rebounded from those struggles to lead the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Final, saving 36 of 38 shots in the series-clinching game.
The Russian-born goaltender has been masterful for the Rangers, while his teammates have had issues at times in both series. The Penguins and Hurricanes badly outplayed them, especially during 5-on-5 play. The analytics for shots, chances, and expected goals against remain among the worst in the playoffs. Even with this, he had a .949 SV% or better in four of the first six games against the Hurricanes. The Rangers clearly would not have gotten as far as they have without Shesterkin. The Lightning will need to be relentless in the offensive end to get pucks past the Rangers’ netminder.
Related: 3 Reasons the Lightning Will 3-Peat as Cup Champions
If the Lightning can handle the three obstacles that this next series poses, they will be one step closer to getting to the Stanley Cup final and the coveted 3-peat. Game 1 of the series is set for Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.