Tampa Bay Lightning Face Tough Battle, Regardless of Matchup

As the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes prepare for Game 7 of their second-round series, the Tampa Bay Lightning are battling the age-old question of rest vs. rust. Having closed out their series with the Florida Panthers in a four-game sweep last Monday, the Lightning have seen some players get healthy – hopefully headlined by the sooner-than-later return of Brayden Point – but will have eight days off between games. Facing either team coming off of a grueling seven-game series will immediately test if rust – or rest – will win out this time around.

Each potential match-up poses its share of pros and cons as the Bolts look to reach their third straight Stanley Cup Final and become the first team to do so in the salary cap era and the first team since the 1980-1983 New York Islanders. So which team marks the preferred Eastern Conference Final opponent for the Lightning?

Hurricanes Have Improved Since 2021 Playoffs

After finishing with 116 points and finishing first in the Metropolitan Division, this is not the same team that the Lightning made quick work of in a 4-1 series win last season. Sebastian Aho is coming off the second-highest point total of his career (81) and a career-high in assists (44). However, he hasn’t been the top point scorer for the Hurricanes in the playoffs. That would be Teuvo Teravainen, who has 11 this postseason (four goals, seven assists). Teravainen is coming off of a 65-point season, and, like Aho, it’s the second-best output of his career.

Antti Raanta has improved on his regular-season performance in the playoffs, raising his save percentage from .912 to .924 while dropping his goals-against average from 2.45 to 2.20. While the numbers are similar, there is enough improvement there for a team on the cusp of their first Eastern Conference Final since 2009. Raanta is fourth among remaining goalies in save percentage and first in goals-against average this postseason (not counting New York Rangers backup Alexander Georgiev who played less than a full game).

The biggest thing the Canes have going for them is their inability to lose at home. Being undefeated at home in the postseason is a huge boost, especially when they’ve had home-ice advantage through the first two rounds and would have it again in the Conference Final. They’re also a dangerously deep team that can score with their third and fourth lines – much like the Lightning – and that has been a huge spark for a team that has missed that luxury over the last couple of seasons.

Rangers’ Fairy Tale Season

The New York Rangers came out of nowhere this season, thanks in large part to their Hart Trophy Finalist, Igor Shesterkin. Shesterkin finished with a .935 save percentage and 2.07 goals-against average in the regular season and has been the catalyst for an improbable season that saw them nearly double their point total from 2020-21 (60 points to 110).

Igor Shesterkin New York Rangers
Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Beyond Shesterkin, Barclay Goodrow, one of the key members of the Lightning’s back-to-back Cup runs, made his return to the ice in Game 6 following an injury in Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team also traded a third-round pick to the Vegas Golden Knights for defenseman Ryan Reaves, and both players have been instrumental in the success of the Rangers because of their postseason pedigree – unlike any in their locker room – and as pivotal members of the “Heartbeat Line.”

The most surprising part of this Rangers run is seeing them do it mostly without Artemi Panarin playing his best. Panarin has four goals in the Rangers’ 13 postseason games and 10 points – well below his 1.28 points-per-game average during the regular season. On top of that, he leads the Rangers in giveaways (20) and hasn’t found that groove that made him the team’s leading scorer this season.

While Panarin is apparently dealing with some sort of upper-body injury, most players at this stage are dealing with something but have found a way to play through it while still being productive. If the Rangers are going to continue this magical run – and hand the Hurricanes their first home loss of the playoffs – he has to be the one to take over and look like the All-Star that he is.

Special Teams

While the Lightning are one of the better teams at special teams still in the playoffs, they have a decided advantage against the Hurricanes. The Lightning are the best team remaining at killing penalties (87.80% PK), and the Hurricanes are the worst in terms of power-play scoring (12.00%). On the flip side, the Lightning are the fourth-best remaining team at scoring on the power play (22.92%), whereas Carolina ranks fourth on the penalty kill (76.60%).

There was a noticeable difference in the Lightning’s power play without Point against the Panthers. However, even without Point, the Lightning still have a clear advantage over the Hurricanes’ penalty kill unit.

Brayden Point Tampa Bay Lightning
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Rangers are a little more evenly matched in this area with the third-best penalty kill (81.08%) of the remaining teams and are second only to the Colorado Avalanche on the power play (29.73%). A matchup like this will make Lightning fans miss Goodrow and Blake Coleman, but Nick Paul has stepped up huge for Tampa Bay in that role.

Who Should Lightning Fans Root for in Game 7?

It’s a tough call. The Lightning went 0-3 against the Rangers during the regular season and 1-1-1 against the Hurricanes. In terms of matchups, fans should prefer to face the Hurricanes’ special teams and square off against Raanta than Shesterkin.

Overall, the Lightning can beat either team in a seven-game series – even if that team is undefeated at home this postseason. Tampa Bay’s championship pedigree versus a team that hasn’t experienced the thrill of raising the Cup gives the Bolts an advantage. They know what it takes to win, and they’re willing to put every inch of their body in harm’s way to prevent letting in a goal – which cannot be taught. It has to be something the players are willing to do to chase that feeling of winning it all once again.

At the end of the day, the Lightning probably matchup a little better against the Hurricanes, but there’s no doubt they can win the Eastern Conference Final for the third year in a row and the fourth time since 2015, no matter who takes Game 7 tonight in Raleigh.

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