It took seven games and a monumental comeback by the New York Rangers to return to the Eastern Conference Finals. But, for the second year in a row but they earned it and now face the Tampa Bay Lightning for the right to play for Lord Stanley.
Mark Stepan scored at 11:24 of OT last Tuesday to defeat the Washington Capitals 2-1 at Madison Square Garden. Tampa needed six games to eliminate the Montreal Canadiens (the #1 seed) after jumping out to a 3-0 series lead.
The Rangers and Lightning have not played each other since early December, and like the Habs, New York lost all regular season games to Tampa (0-3), and were outscored 15-7. What has changed since then?
The Rangers brought in Keith Yandle to spice up the power play, give them more experience on the blue-line and play big minutes. They also acquired James Sheppard who has appeared in seven playoff games including the series clincher versus Washington. Yandle played a key role in setting up Stepan’s OT winner.
Tampa also brought in a nice piece in defenseman Braydon Coburn, a physical presence that leads the Lightning in blocked shots.
These two teams pulled off a blockbuster deal at the 2013 trade deadline, swapping forwards Martin St. Louis and Ryan Callahan (Rangers Captain at time of trade). The deal paid off well for New York as they went to the Stanley Cup finals, while Tampa was swept in the first round (Montreal). The Lightning (in separate deals) also acquired former Rangers Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman. New York landed former Tampa defenseman Dan Boyle. St. Louis is an aging veteran whose best hockey is behind him. Still a warrior who gives it his all each shift but his minutes have decreased significantly since he helped guide his former team to their only Stanley Cup championship.
Callahan was kept out of game 6 versus Montreal due to an emergency appendectomy. The veteran forward was back on the ice Thursday taking part in an optional morning skate. He is usually paired with Boyle and Stralman on the third line but has also played along-side Steven Stamkos.
Stamkos’s offensive production was slow to start this post season but he’s picked it up as of late, registering points in his last five games. Overshadowing the team captain has been the play of Tyler Johnson who has 8 goals in 13 playoff games. He and his line-mates Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat have been red hot. They have been Tampa’s best line, with Alex Killorn and Valterri Filppula flanking Stamkos. The Lightning possess two power units that will give the Rangers all kinds of trouble.
Couple that with the swift, puck moving defensemen in Stralman and fellow countrymen Victor Hedman and the steady, consistent play of goaltender Ben Bishop the Lightning are a real threat to unseat the Rangers as ECF Champions.
New York breezed through the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1, winning in five games. The Capitals were a much tougher opponent in the second obviously and the physical series took its toll on New York. The Rangers at one point were down 3-1 but were able to sustain the Caps offense and overcome the heavy hits to clinch the series in seven games. They had real trouble finding ways to beat Braden Holtby who was phenomenal in net for Washington. Bishop plays a similar style and presents a huge challenge for the Rangers.
Adding to the Rangers offensive woes could be the loss of Dan Boyle who left game seven after a vicious hit delivered by Brooks Orpik. His status is unknown for game one and the series. This is a huge loss for the Rangers if Boyle misses any time. He’s one of the better offensive defenseman in the league and eats up plenty of minutes.
New York is already without forward Mats Zuccarello. They need Rick Nash to produce, he had one goal versus the Capitals. He’s on the top-line with Derick Brassard and center J.T. Miller. Stepan and Chris Kreider are on the second line and will be expected to contribute more. Nash is on the decline and has been for several years. St. Louis was benched for parts of the 3rd period in the last game and if Brassard is a top-line forward for you that’s a problem. I love his hard-nosed style and he can chip in a goal here and there but at this stage of the playoff’s he’s better served on the 3rd or 4th line.
The Rangers play with a lot of pride and MSG is never easy to play as a visiting team. Henrik Lundqvist has been as good as any goaltender these playoffs but will he have enough support to hold off this Tampa offense?
There are too many question marks surrounding New York heading into the third round but they have been here before. Alain Vigneault is a great coach and could be the difference. He made terrific adjustments in the Caps series. At times during these playoffs, Tampa coach Jon Cooper looked like he was in over his head, especially in the opening round versus the Detroit Red Wings.
Stamkos, Johnson, Bishop is game, set, match. The Lightning can be just as physical as Washington and they are just as explosive offensively as any team except perhaps the Chicago Blackhawks. They are a young team with a young coach but they begin this series (like the last) on the road. Away from the brutal Lightning press (that’s being sarcastic). Still, game one as always is the key. They are well rested and ready to go, whereas the Rangers are still icing down every limb from the effects of the many licks they took against Washington.
Lundqvist is good if not the best goalie remaining of the 4 teams gutting it out for the Stanley Cup. Even still, he’s going to face many more shots, deal with more traffic in front of his grill, and have less experienced defenseman in front of him, and a lot less talent on offense.
I’ll take talent in a seven game series all day and the Lightning are a deeper team. They are not getting the respect they deserve for how quickly they move the puck through the neutral zone or for their many scoring opportunities, that power play is deadly. Out of respect……Tampa in 6 but this could be over in four.