If there’s one thing that’s for sure, it’s that there’s no shortage of story lines heading into this year’s Eastern Conference Finals between the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Two teams that like to utilize speed and skill coupled with strong goaltending between the pipes, the Rangers and the Lightning matchup well against one another. Meeting for the first time ever in the postseason, these foes with plenty of familiar faces on both sides could produce a real treat for fans across the NHL as the winner will punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final.
Reunions All Around
It was a little over a year ago when New York and Tampa Bay swapped captains when the Rangers sent Ryan Callahan south in exchange for veteran forward Martin St. Louis.
Last spring it was Callahan’s Lightning who were sent packing early as they were swept in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens, while St. Louis led an emotionally charged run to the Stanley Cup Final on Broadway. While the Blueshirts ultimately fell just shy of hockey’s ultimate prize, the two former captains now find themselves meeting their former teams with yet another trip to the final on the line; St. Louis against the team where he spent 13 seasons, and Callahan the organization which he was a part of for over seven seasons and captained for almost three.
But wait, it gets better.
Beyond the Callahan-St.Louis story, there’s also Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman, both of whom were key pieces to last year’s Eastern Conference Champion Rangers team. After the magical run for the Blueshirts came to an early and abrupt end, the two veterans took to the open market and were eventually taken on by Lightning as free agents, joining former teammate Callahan down in south Florida.
Dan Boyle, who also spent six seasons as a member of the Lightning earlier in his career, will be returning to Tampa Bay this time as a member of the Rangers.
Led by an impressive four goals and five points in three games by Callahan, the Lightning swept the season series over the Rangers 3-0. There’s no question that for St. Louis, Callahan, both Boyle’s, and Stralman, this Eastern Conference Final series will bring back some strong memories; an added bonus to what should already be a stellar matchup.
Scouting the Rangers
The Rangers are coming off of a seven game series against a very good Washington Capitals team that earned the reputation under Barry Trotz of being an extremely physical, tight checking defensive club that collapsed in front and blocked a lot of shots. They did just that in the second round against New York and made it very difficult for the Rangers to create space and generate offense. Still, though, they somehow found a way to claw their way back from a 3-1 series deficit to down the Caps in seven games in order to advance.
This upcoming series against Tampa Bay should in theory suit the Rangers’ style of play better, as both teams seem to be comfortable playing a fast north-south style game, and as we saw in round two against the Capitals, the Rangers are a far better team when they’re able to push the pace. Playing a fast game should be something they’re able to do against Tampa Bay and should work well for the Blueshirts, particularly against a team that will block substantially fewer shots than Washington did in the early going of the second round series.
What that also means though, is that Chris Kreider, who emerged as a menace for the Capitals last series, will be the Rangers’ X-factor in this series.
Michael Traikos of the National Post described Kreider’s build as one that is made specifically for playoff hockey. That combination of speed and strength which Kreider possesses is something that will be perfect for a series such as this one against the Lightning where open space should be less of a commodity, and more commonplace. Tied for the team lead with five goals in 12 games in these playoffs thus far, look for Kreider to continue to be an impact player, and maybe even more so in the upcoming series than he has been in the first two.
And while all of this would appear to work well for the Rangers, the only reason a fast paced series will be likely is because it will also work within the comfort zone of the Lightning. What that means for the Rangers, however, is that they’ll likely have to rely just a little bit more on Henrik Lundqvist, and after seeing his performances in this year’s playoffs up to this point – 8 wins, 1.60 goals against average, and a .944 save percentage – that just may not be such a bad thing.
There are some health concerns surrounding the Rangers as well, as Dan Boyle immediately headed to the dressing room after he got walloped by Brooks Orpik in game seven, while Mats Zuccarello continues to be absent from the Rangers lineup after taking a puck to the head from a Ryan McDonagh shot. On the flip side for the Rangers though, McDonagh, who was on the receiving end of a crushing Ovechkin hit in the latter stages on game six, did play in game seven with no apparent lingering effects.
These two days may be just what the doctor ordered for the Blueshirts.
Scouting the Lightning
The Lightning are fresh off of their six game series win over the Montreal Canadiens. After the Lightning jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, the Canadiens battled back to earn two consecutive wins of their own to force a game six. Having no interest in playing a game seven, as Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper put it, the Lightning put away the Canadiens on home ice in game six by a 4-1 final.
Much like the Rangers, Tampa Bay’s high octane offense feeds off of time and space. The most potent offense in the regular season averaging 3.16 goals per game, and the top ranked offense in the Eastern Conference in the playoffs thus far, the Lightning have an offense that when rolling, can all but score at will.
While Steven Stamkos (who has gotten off to a slow start by his standards this postseason with just three goals in 13 games) is the name that will naturally jump out at everyone, it’s actually the second line of Tampa Bay – informally known as the “Triplets Line” – that has made the biggest dent in the opposition these playoffs.
Consisting of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov, the “Triplets Line” has combined for a whopping 17 goals and 31 points in 13 games these playoffs, while the rest of the team combined has amassed just 56. Heading into the Conference Finals, Johnson is also leading the Lightning in goals (8), total points (12), and game winning goals (3), while the second line additionally has equated for five of the team’s eight game winning goals in these playoffs.
Tampa Bay’s second line has provided the Lightning with strong secondary support behind the top line of Stamkos, Killorn, and Callahan, and has the potential to make life difficult for the Alain Vigneault and his defense.
Backstopping it all behind the Lightning offense has been netminder Ben Bishop. Though he certainly got some help from the iron in the second round against Montreal, the large 6’7” 214 pound Tampa Bay goaltender has provided steady play in net thus far in the playoffs. A 1.81 postseason goals against average and a .931 save percentage, Bishop is among the league’s top remaining goaltenders. While he’s had minor glove side issues in recent days, the native of Denver, Colorado will no doubt he tough for the Rangers to crack.
As far as injuries are concerned, the Lightning find themselves relatively healthy. While Ryan Callahan did miss game six against Montreal due to an emergency appendectomy, it appears that he may be alright and ready to go for Saturday as he practiced with the Lightning on Thursday.
The Lightning may have won all three contests against the Rangers this season, but each of those came so early on in the schedule, and long before the Rangers set off on their climb to the top of the league standings. The Rangers have developed into a fast, unbelievably resilient squad that seems most comfortable with their backs against the wall.
Bottom line? The two team’s that will faceoff against one another for the Prince of Whales Trophy are not the same one’s that duked it out late this past fall.
The team’s which will meet come Saturday at 1 p.m. are two that have very familiar faces on both sides, and are both team’s that like to play a fast style of hockey. Both teams have offensive star power in Rick Nash and Steven Stamkos, and both have smart defense cores that can contribute offensively.
Between the pipes is where this series could be won or lost, and while Ben Bishop has been very good for the Lightning (good enough to beat Carey Price), the advantage at this point would have to go to The King.
On paper, this should be a terrific, entertaining Eastern Conference Final series. It just may come down to which goaltender can out-do the other. Whichever way you slice it, it should be a dandy.
Jake Gittler is now in his second season as a contributing member of The Hockey Writers. After spending the 2014-15 season working in Communications for Adirondack Flames of the AHL and covering the New York Rangers here for The Hockey Writers, Jake’s coverage has been switched over to the Colorado Avalanche for the 2015-16 season. Jake can be reached via email at Jakegittler@gmail.com, or on Twitter @Jgittler_hockey.