Rich Nash and the Rangers will battle ex-Blueshirt Anton Stralman as the Tampa Bay Lightning arrive in the Big Apple to begin the Eastern Conference Final on Saturday afternoon at the Garden.
New York did not get its dream Stanley Cup playoff matchup between the Rangers and Islanders, but the Eastern Conference finals are bringing the next best thing: the Rangers vs. Rangers South.
A Tampa Bay Lightning team with former Ranger captain Ryan Callahan and fellow ex-Blueshirts Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman stands in the way of Alain Vigneault’s team reaching the Cup final for a second straight season.
Meanwhile, the Rangers also have plenty of former Tampa Bay standouts: Martin St. Louis and Dan Boyle won the Lightning’s only Stanley Cup in 2004, and Dominic Moore was a major part of Tampa’s last run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2011.
Rangers GM Glen Sather has poached virtually all of the top talent from that 2004 Lightning squad for his own franchise’s benefit in recent years, including former coach John Tortorella and center Brad Richards, who remains in these playoffs with the Chicago Blackhawks.
These are new teams now, though, and here is how they stack up:
Ever heard of “The Triplets?” While center Steven Stamkos is the Lightning’s superstar, Tampa’s top line unquestionably is the trio of left wing Ondrej Palat, 24, center Tyler Johnson, 24, and right wing Nikita Kucherov, 21. Nicknamed by coach Jon Cooper for their chemistry, they have combined for a staggering 17 goals and 31 points through 13 playoff games. The Rangers’ leading postseason scorer, center Derick Brassard (five goals, eight points), ranks 17th in the NHL. The Lightning, in contrast, has three skaters in the league’s top 10 and four ahead of Brassard: Johnson is third (eight goals, 12 points), Kucherov is fifth (six goals, 11 points), Stamkos is ninth (three goals, 10 points) and Alex Killorn is 16th (three goals, nine points). The Rangers’ answer is the “Homegrown Line” of three draft picks in Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Jesper Fast. They combined for 13 points in the second round to beat Washington, including Stepan’s Game 7 winning goal in overtime. The health of Mats Zuccarello (head injury, “progressing”), however, is critical in this series. The Blueshirts got by the Capitals without him, but St. Louis has no goals in the playoffs and was demoted from his top-line role temporarily late in Game 7. Callahan had an appendectomy on Monday night and missed Game 6 against Montreal but was back practicing Thursday. Anyone who knows Callahan knows his tolerance for pain and his determination. Expect him to play, joining Boyle, who always plays best when the games matter most.
Lightning star Steven Stamkos
Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images
Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh
The Rangers have the best blue line in hockey, led by captain Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. They have to be encouraged by Keith Yandle rising to the occasion in Game 7, and they have to expect Kevin Klein will play better against Tampa Bay. Vigneault said Dan Boyle is “fine” after taking a vicious headshot from Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, but if Boyle is ailing, Matt Hunwick is a dependable replacement. This is the key to the series for the Rangers: Whether the NHL’s best defensive corps can stop the league’s highest-scoring team. Tampa Bay’s major weaknesses on its ‘D’ are immobile Czech Andrej Sustr, and former Philadelphia Flyer Braydon Coburn, who will have to maintain a physical presence on the back end. But the blue line is also full of puck movers, led by Stralman and the incredible-skating Victor Hedman, an imposing pair of Swedes joined by veteran Jason Garrison and Matt Carle.
Call him “Big Ben.” Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, 28, who stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 209 pounds, has an 8-0-0 all-time mark against the Rangers with only 11 goals against, giving him a 1.49 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage in those starts. His first win over the Blueshirts came with the Ottawa Senators on March 8, 2012. I’ve seen all of Bishop’s starts against the Rangers. He’s the real deal. Oh, and he just beat this year’s likely MVP, Canadiens goalie Carey Price, head-to-head. So why would the Rangers have an advantage here? Well, even though Bishop has a 8-5-1 record, 1.81 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in these playoffs, this is still his first NHL postseason, compared to Henrik Lundqvist, 33, who has 104 career playoff appearances and owns a staggering .944 save percentage and 1.60 goals-against average in going 8-4 this spring. The chess move of ‘Bishop to King four’ to knock out the Rangers will be much more difficult than any regular-season test.
Vigneault, who turned 54 on Thursday, ranks 19th in NHL coaching history with 520 regular-season wins in 970 career games. He is a four-time Jack Adams Award finalist for coach of the year, including this season, and won the award in 2007 with Vancouver. He has won the Presidents’ Trophy three times in the last five seasons, with the Canucks twice (2011 and 2012) and the Rangers this season. He lost in the Cup final in 2011 and in the first round in 2012 with Vancouver but hopes to make a second straight trip with the Rangers to the Cup final this spring. He has a 58-57 career postseason record. Cooper, 47, who played four seasons of Division I lacrosse at Hofstra, in contrast is in just his second full NHL season as head coach (180 career games). He has an impressive 101-59 record since taking over in March of 2013 from Guy Boucher and has an 8-9 career postseason record.
The Lightning has had a startling 50 power-play opportunities in the playoffs and has converted on 18% of them — not bad, not great. The Rangers (6-for-38, 15.8%) have been less efficient but scored three power-play goals against the Capitals, including one apiece in Games 6 and 7. The Blueshirts’ penalty kill has been absolutely stellar: 89.3% efficiency in killing off 25 of 28 opponents’ power plays, including 14 of 15 in their seven-game series against Washington. They killed off all 13 Capitals power plays in the final six games. The Caps had the league’s best power play in the regular season (25.3%). Tampa Bay’s PK, still, is 6-for-45 (86.7%).
Rangers in 7: If you think it will be easy, you haven’t been watching. And if you don’t believe, you haven’t been paying attention, either.
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