Talk about a tough series to predict. The New York Rangers, the Presidents’ Trophy winners of the regular season, against the young on-the-rise Tampa Bay Lightning. The series is so tough to predict because of all the former players on each side, how similar these teams are, and the Rangers 0-3 record against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the regular season where they gave up a tremendous amount of goals (15).
Yes, that was an early-season struggling New York Rangers team that was playing .500 hockey and ran into a red-hot, fired-up, Tampa Bay Lightning team at the time. So it should not carry as much weight if any right? I believe it does not, but the Lightning can still take some confidence internally from those games, even if they do not show it to the media. These are different teams, at a different part of the season, with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line.
The Lightning went undefeated against Atlantic Division Rival Montreal Canadiens in the regular season, and then exploded with a devastating power play and a 3-0 series lead before winning the series in 6 on home ice. The Habs had to be thinking in their locker room just how they were going to beat these guys.
I call the beginning of this series a mystery because I believe you can make a strong case for either team in this series. The Rangers have the experience. The Lightning have the youth and fresh legs. The Rangers have the deeper defense. The Lightning have the deeper offense. The Rangers have extremely fast forwards. The Lightning have extremely fast forwards. The Rangers have world-class goaltending. The Lightning have elite goaltending. The Rangers struggle on the power play and the Lightning are descent on the penalty kill. The Lightning power-play has been spectacular as of late, but the Rangers penalty-kill has been very good. Both teams’ captains at the start of the 2013-2014 season are wearing the opposition’s sweater. This will be a series with a lot of emotion, drama, and unpredictability.
In this Eastern Conference Finals you could not have scripted a more interesting matchup. The Rangers will be by far the toughest test of the playoffs for the Lightning, despite going the distance in the 1st round against the Detroit Red Wings. The Rangers playoff experience, defense, and ability to play any type of hockey is why they are one of the elite teams in the National Hockey League. Here are 3 keys for each team during this series.
New York Rangers
1) Stay Disciplined
The Lightning Power Play is very dangerous right now and in the Montreal series they moved the puck quicker and more efficiently on the power play than any other team currently playing hockey.
The Canadiens were simply overwhelmed trying to defend the puck movement of Tampa on the power play. After struggling with it against the Red Wings, they clicked 4-out-of-7 in Game 2 against Montreal. Why is it so effective? It’s all about the personnel. The Lightning first power play unit is the Triplets Line up front with Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman on the blueline. Good luck defending that. The Rangers must stay out of the penalty box and not let the Lightning special teams be the deciding factor in this series. Players must be responsible, play smart hockey, and use their speed to defend.
2) Be Physical With The Triplets Line
The Rangers have to slow these guys down somehow. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov are one of the best lines, and best storylines in hockey this year. The line of 2nd year pro’s has carried the Lightning offensively and have been the catalyst all playoffs for this group. Coach Alain Vigneault is well aware of what they can do.
— Pat Leonard (@PLeonardNYDN) May 15, 2015
Out of the 34 goals the Lightning have scored in the playoffs, this line has 17 of them. As good as Steven Stamkos is, you would think that you have to put your top defense pair of McDonagh and Girardi on the Triplets.
Staal and Klein are as capable of a 2nd defense pair as it gets in the National Hockey League.
This is where the Rangers have an edge that the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens did not have. The Rangers are much deeper on defense than those two teams, and that should be huge for them in this series. One player for New York that needs to be better defensively is Keith Yandle. Sure he was acquired for his offense, but against a team like Tampa where all 4 lines can score, he has to play better.
If you wanted to stop Tampa Bay in the past you would have to shut down number 91 and that is not the case anymore in 2015. You have to shut down 91 as well as the Triplets Line for starters. The Rangers have two shut-down pairings in their arsenal that have what it takes to make this series very tough on the Lightning forwards.
Name of the game vs Lightning for Rangers IMO is turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Limit them, win. Commit them, Bolts in transition, lose.
— Pat Leonard (@PLeonardNYDN) May 16, 2015
Oh yeah not to mention a world-class top-3 goalie in the world in Henrik Lundqvist that has won almost everything in this sport except a Stanley Cup Championship. Through 2 rounds Lundqvist is 8-4 with a 1.60 goals against average, and an incredible .944 save percentage.
3) Get Rick Nash Active
Somewhat lost in the furious, thrilling, late-game charge by the Washington Capitals in Game 6 against New York was the fact that Rick Nash finally scored a big goal. It’s not like he isn’t getting chances, Nash is 3rd in the NHL this playoffs in shots on goal.
Nash has just not been able to finish his opportunities. Rick Nash was brought to the Rangers to help them win a Stanley Cup. Maybe he is feeling the pressure of that, is tired, or just simply is in yet another slump at the wrong time of the year. Whatever the case may be, Nash has a chance to be a legend in the city of New York right now.
Nash needs to dig very deep this series, and play like the man possessed that fans were treated to in the first 65 games on the regular season. It is going to take sacrifice, heart, and determination, but 61 needs to find it this series and carry this team offensively. Especially facing the league’s top scoring offense from the regular season in Tampa Bay, the Rangers know that to beat the Lightning they will need to score more than in the first two rounds.
Tampa Bay Lightning
1) Get Steven Stamkos Involved Early and Often
As we take a look at the Tampa Bay side, we will first focus on their captain Steven Stamkos. Stamkos is experiencing a scoring drought similar to Rick Nash in these playoffs. Stamkos was held without a goal the entire first round of the playoffs, before finding the back of the net 3 times against Montreal. Stamkos looked like his usual self in Game 6 when he sniped a wicked wrister past the best goalie in the league this season, Carey Price.
When Stamkos is on his game it makes the Lightning one tough team to defend. He needs to build on that goal and play with a ton of confidence against New York.
2) Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman
This defense pairing is simply fantastic. The two Swedish defenseman are as good as it gets in the entire league.
Cooper's favorite phrase on Stralman: "He may not win the Norris Trophy, but his partner will. That's how good he can make you look."
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) May 15, 2015
Victor Hedman, the 6’6, dominant all-around defenseman does a lot of things for his hockey team. Hedman can play McDonagh-like shutdown defense, display Yandle-like puck movement, and join the rush on a regular basis because of his incredible skating ability for his size.
Whenever Hedman joins the rush it usually at least creates a top quality scoring chance. It helps to have Ben Bishop in net, who has been dominant since he became a full-time starter for the Lightning at the start of the 2013-2014 regular season. This is Bishop’s first time experiencing the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the 6’7 goalie has embraced the challenge. For what it’s worth, Bishop is 8-0 career against the New York Rangers.
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) May 16, 2015
In his first Stanley Cup Playoffs Ben Bishop is 8-5 with 1.81 goals against average, and a .931 save percentage.
Hedman is going to play a major role in this series on the blueline for the Lightning. His defense partner, former Ranger Anton Stralman, has enjoyed his best season arguably as a pro for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Playing in Jon Cooper’s system, Stralman has taken his game to another level, and is also an excellent puck mover. This pair can help create offense and take it away from the opposition. Watch out for these guys in this series. They will be paired against whoever the team believes is the Rangers top line, whether it be Derek Brassard’s line or Derek Stepan’s.
3) Try to Push the Pace
The Lightning are a team that when they get going, they do not take their foot off the gas pedal. They do not sit back and try to protect leads and win 1-0 or 2-1 on a regular basis. They do this because they are a confident group and can score goals in bunches. That is a big difference between these two teams.
The Rangers might be more likely to go into a more defensive style with the lead and sit back (Washington Series Game 6), where the Lightning will keep coming after you and creating scoring chances because they know it is what they do best. The Rangers and the Lightning will be a fast-paced series.
The Lightning will play a different type of game than the Washington Capitals. Tampa will play a speed game with smart positioning in all three zones. Both teams have players with high hockey IQ that will do whatever it takes for their teams to win.
If the Lightning can use their youth, overall younger legs, and offensive prowess to make this series a track meet, as well as push the pace, and possess the puck more each game, then they have a great chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
For the Lightning they have no pressure in this series from an outside perspective. They have already taken a huge stride forward as an organization, and win or lose this series their season has been a huge success.
On the other side of it, the New York Rangers are in Stanley Cup Championship only mode. The Lightning have to keep it in mind that more pressure is on the opposition, just go out and play, and may the best team win. Enjoy this one hockey fans. I’m not making any predictions for this series, but I will say this: another game 7 at Madison Square Garden might just be in the near future.
I am a 2015 graduate of Montclair State University in New Jersey. I have coached ice hockey at the high school level for two seasons here in NJ. I will be covering the Toronto Maple Leafs moving forward for The Hockey Writers.