Game one of the Eastern Conference finals will take place tonight at 8:00 PM and the Rangers are taking on the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Their opponent rested nine days before the start of this exciting series while the Rangers just finished a second-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes that lasted seven games. Despite the short rest, the Rangers’ youthful roster will be fired up and ready to go for their original six franchise’s first conference finals appearance since 2015, which they lost to Tampa Bay, which means the Garden will be very loud tonight!
So far, the playoffs have not gone perfectly for Chris Kreider or any of the Rangers’ top guns but Kreids did net two in game seven against Carolina while ‘Breadman’, Artemi Panarin scored the overtime game-winner in game seven of the first round showing they know how to come up big when it counts. Nevertheless, perhaps their first-line center, Mika Zibanejad will be a key player in this series especially now that the Lightning will be coping without their first-line center, Brayden Point. He showed up big with eight points and three assists in game seven of the Rangers’ recent series. Going up against a team like Tampa who has the “best goalie in hockey” in Andrei Vasilevskiy as well as good defences and offences with mounds of playoff experience, so the Rangers will need to be on their “A” games, but this is what makes me think they can beat the defending champion ‘Bolts’ in the conference finals.
The Goalie Match-up
Although Vasilevsky has been in the NHL for five more years than Shesterkin, they are VERY close in terms of ability right now. Shesterkin made his presence known for the first time in the NHL this season, posting the league’s best goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.936). Vasilevskiy’s stats were far off (2.42, 916 SV%) during the season but as Gerard Gallant said when asked, beating Tampa during the regular season counts for; “it means nothing.” This sounds harsh to Ranger fans who want goaltending to be their edge over the Lightning but the Rangers head coach is being realistic and true to form.
Of course, Shesterkin was pulled in the first round against the Penguins but played strong at the end of that series. In round two, he played well in every game and did not surrender more than three goals to Carolina in any single game. Overall, ‘Shesty’ has a 1.73 GAA during this run, but Vasilevskiy was even a bit better as he gave up only three goals in four games and posted an unheard-of 0.73. This makes this matchup very interesting, but I believe Shesty will outperform Vasilevskiy over the course of this series because he proved in the last series that he can be the Ranger backbone against Carolina and is ready to be the difference in the first conference finals he has ever experienced. Overall, the goaltending matchup in this conference final will be as thin as a razor blade but the very slight edge goes to Shesterkin. The Ranger’s man between the pipes played better than any other goalie, including the two-time cup-winner, Vasilevskiy during the regular season and other than two bad games in his first playoff series ever, ‘Shesty’ has been dominant in these playoffs.
How do the Forwards Stack Up?
This is where most of the intrigue is because we all figure that Igor and Andrei are great in net, but who is going to score on them? Well, the goalies have their work cut out for themselves just as much as the forwards do because both teams have great goal scorers. The Bolts, Nikita Kucherov can wrist one past you after dangling a defenseman and Steven Stamkos has one of the best 1-timers in the game.
The most underrated part of Tampa Bay is their forward-depth because they may have lost first-line center, Brayden Point to injury but Anthony Cirelli has stepped in to replace Point and has looked good in these playoffs. These two will be players the Rangers’ offensive centers like Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome need to outplay their opposing centermen to give the Rangers an edge and it’s not going to be easy. Another matchup to watch will be the second lines, which are very different on either team. The Rangers’ second line has been inconsistent in these playoffs and needs to raise its game.
A key to doing that involves second-line winger, Andrew Copp showing up to every game in this series. Copp has five goals in these playoffs, which is tied for second on the team with Zibanejad but Copp went quiet in games four, five and six in the 2nd round before scoring a goal and assist in game seven. Overall, the Rangers’ top six have enough skill and scoring punch to match up with Tampa but they need to outwork Tampa Bay, which has good two-way forwards like Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn on their second line. To accomplish this, second-line winger and Rangers playmaking guru, Panarin must limit his turnovers as he has more (31) which leads both teams in these playoffs. This will be a key matchup for the Rangers because stacking up against a Bolts’ first line that is without Brayden Point is not as scary as that second line matchup.
With this in mind, the Rangers have an advantage because all of their forwards are healthy and they have Goodrow back centring their fourth line. Zibanejad towers over Cirelli physically but can he outskate this lightning-fast, ‘flash’ of a forward? That remains to be seen and makes for an interesting center matchup. Kreider who had a mediocre second round (even though he scored two goals in game seven) will have to be on his toes defensively against grade-a winger like Nikita Kucherov. The Lightning may have lost Point but they still have four lines that are battle-tested in the playoffs and it will be interesting to see how sharp the Rangers are from the get-go.
Both Power Plays have been effective, but New York has the edge here. The Rangers have had the second-best in these playoffs (32.5%) behind only Edmonton and it was on full display when they scored on two-of-three opportunities against Carolina in a crucial game seven. Tampa’s man-advantage unit was further behind at sixth-best but Gerard Gallant’s group cannot take them lightly.
While it is not clear when the Bolts’ best center, Brayden Point will return, the Lightning still have Stamkos and former Norris trophy-winning defenseman, Victor Hedman on the point of their PP unit. They also will have the strong net-front presence of NHL veteran Corey Perry who has three power-play goals (three in three straight games in round two) which makes Perry public-enemy number one for Jacob Trouba and the Rangers’ top penalty-killing unit. This matchup will be interesting because Perry is by far the biggest body and most cunning battler that Trouba has had to defend during these playoffs. So far through two playoff series, neither the Pens nor Canes threw anyone who was 6’3″ and 206-pounds at Trouba (6’3″, 209 lbs.) and the Rangers’ shut-down defenseman needs to be up for the challenge.
The Lightning will look to keep things at five-on-five, while the Rangers will relish opportunities to take the lead in a game on the man advantage. This is their trump card because if they can cash in on the Tampa Bay penalty kill, there’s a good chance of holding on behind their Vezina-worthy netminder. However, Tampa Bay has the highest rated penalty kill (87.8) of the teams left in the playoffs with the Rangers a good seven percentage points behind (80.3). There will be drama behind every penalty taken in this series which will be great theatre for the fans, but in order to win the special teams battle against the defending champs, Gallant’s team must play great at even strength.
Two Deep Defenses
In the first round against Pittsburgh, the Rangers got Ryan Lindgren back. He stepped right in despite probably not being at full health and was one of the main reasons their defence held firm against a tough offence. Lindgren has the best plus-minus rating of any Rangers player in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The next closest is his partner, Adam Fox who has a plus-two and both have been key to each other’s success as well as the Rangers as a team. This is not to forget about the Rangers’ first defensive pair and third pair which have each played well in the series against Carolina than they did against Pittsburgh.
However, measuring them up against Carolina is one thing and now they have a whole new animal to play against in the Lightning. The Lightning may be missing their top center, but this does not mean they will have trouble scoring in this series. Tampa still has their captain, Steven Stamkos, fully healthy for the first time in years and he has eight points in 11 games this postseason. Then there is his linemate on the first line, Kucherov who leads their team with 15 points, which puts the onus on the Rangers’ top defensive pairing of Trouba-Miller to stop these powerful Bolts of Lightning.
The last time the Rangers defence had to contend with superstar forwards was in round one. The Penguins threw Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel– and Evgeni Malkin at the Rangers on different lines and the Penguins’ terrific trio succeeded. Crosby had ten points in the seven-game series and Guentzel lit the lamp eight times. This was honestly a disaster for the Rangers and the key reason why that series went seven games was that the Rangers had the edge in depth. If the Rangers have any hope of beating the defending champions in this conference final, they have to contain the Lightning’s best offensive players. Trouba and Miller have been solid but they need to be even better in this series.
Meanwhile, in terms of how the Bolts’ defence stacks up versus the Rangers, the Rangers’ forwards will have a tougher time scoring at five-on-five against a huge man like Victor Hedman and Erik Cernak (first pairing) and against the uber-experienced pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Zach Bogosian. Nevertheless, one edge here is that the Lightning’s first pair are big and can be beaten with speed and puck movement. Moreover, Tampa Bay have one defenseman that can be exploited and his name is Cal Foote. ‘Big’ Foote is 6’4″, 227 pounds and has just two years of experience but head coach Cooper has been able to pair him with a veteran in Mikhail Sergachev making it a tough third defensive pair but both can be beaten with speed. On the other hand, the New York Rangers’ third pairing of 20-year-old rookie Braden Schneider, and Justin Braun must be as mistake-free as possible in order to avoid being a detriment to their team. There are lots of matchups to be had, but overall in order to beat the Lightning the Rangers have to do the little things at five-on-five to keep up with the defending champs and they absolutely can do that.
Game one of the Conference Finals begins tonight at 8:00 PM eastern and will be played at MSG in New York City. Let’s get ready to rumble, hockey fans and see if the Rangers can take down Goliath!
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