Playoffs

ECF Preview : Rangers vs Lightning – Will We See a Changing of the Guard?

The two Conference Finals look to be polar opposite of each other. As evident by last night’s Game 1, the Western Conference Final lived up to the hype with a fast paced, little defense, high flying game. In the East, it is a different story as we have two well structured, grind it out teams with elite goaltending.

Starting with the returning, back-to-back champions, the Lightning are back in an attempt to be the first team since the Islanders in the early ‘80s to win three cups in a row. This team needs no introduction at this point, their core has remained in tact and General Manager Julien BriseBois once again paid a premium to fill out his roster with the role players he wanted. Losing the line of Coleman-Gourde-Goodrow would be too much to overcome for a lesser GM, but not BriseBois. The signing of Bellemare and Perry in the offseason, followed by the acquisition of Hagel and Paul at the trade deadline was vintage BriseBois, and has this team is poised for another possible shot at the Stanley Cup.

The Rangers have been trending in the right direction for a couple of years now, and are finally reaping the rewards. The timing of the Gerard Gallant hire, and the progress of their young prospects could not have lined up better. Panarin, Fox, Zibanejad and Kreider have led the charge for this team all year and continue to do so in the playoffs. However, the biggest story for this team has been the breakout, Vezina-caliber season of Igor Shesterkin. Despite a rough start in their First Round matchup against Pittsburgh, Shesterkin found his groove against the Hurricanes. His play can counter balance one of the major advantages that Tampa has had in most, if not all of the last 10 playoff series they have won.

This series has the potential to be a changing of the guard in the East. The Lightning have dominated the Conference for years now, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the sixth time in the last eight seasons. Their stars remain their stars as Kucherov and Hedman lead the way in points, but it is the production they get from their depth players that has helped them get this far. Corey Perry and Ross Colton lead the team in goals at 5 a piece, but what makes this team special is their ability to play the game any way their opponent wants to play, and the whole team buys into the system.

The Rangers on the other hand are on the come up after a very public (and successful) rebuild in which they won the NHL Draft Lottery twice, picking up Lafrenière and Kaako in the process. Not to be forgotten, the Rangers also drafted Shesterkin (albeit in 2014), Filip Chytil, K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider in the process, all of whom are prominent players on this team.

The focal point of this series will be the battle between the pipes as Shesterkin and Vasilevskiy have been two of the best goaltenders all season. Shesterkin was the Rangers MVP this season and should be a lock for the Vezina and possibly the Hart (he deserves the Hart in my opinion but that is for another day). He was on pace to put up all-time numbers in a season where teams and players were scoring at historic rates, especially for the cap era. However, despite his regular season, Shesterkin does not have the playoff experience that Vasilevskiy does, which carries a lot of weight this time of the season. If Shesterkin wants to solidify his position as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL, he will need to go punch for punch with his counterpart in this heavy weight battle.

From the crease on out, these teams’ matchup well against each other. Again, the edge in playoff experience is crucial, but an even bigger factor could be fatigue. The Lightning have gone the distance two seasons in a row, and eventually the toll on the body will catch up to even the greatest of athletes. Sweeping the Panthers in the Second Round gave Tampa some much-needed rest, but if this series drags out, you have to wonder if the younger, fresher team will gain the edge.

Special teams will play a big factor in this series as both teams ice a highly potent Power Play unit. The Rangers currently rank second in the league in Power Play percentage at 32.5% which is nearly 10% higher than the Lightning who sit at 22.9%. Granted Tampa holds a similar upper hand on the Penalty Kill as they operate at an 87.8% efficiency compared to New York’s 80.5%. In a series that figures to be a defensive, low scoring battle, making the most of their opportunities on the man advantage could be the deciding factor in this series.

VERDICT – TAMPA BAY in 7

It’s hard not to love what the Rangers have done this season; however, the champs remain the champs until they are dethroned. I choose a Tampa vs Colorado Stanley Cup Final before the playoffs began so why change my mind now?

There is something to be said about the Lightning’s ability to not beat themselves and continually find ways to win, no matter what type of game their opponent wants to play. Even when they are behind on the scoreboard, the Lightning have a calmness and confidence to their game that no other team in the NHL has been able to match.

The Rangers will give the Lightning all they can handle, but there have been two constants in the Stanley Cup Finals over the past two seasons:

  1. The Tampa Bay Lightning
  2. Corey Perry

I’m not willing to bet against either at this point in time, but the Rangers will gain valuable playoff experience as a team. Sometimes you need to lose to learn how to win, and this appears to be that moment for the Rangers.

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