NHL Eastern Conference Final Preview
We’re down to the final two teams in the Eastern Conference. The Tampa Bay Lightning survived a late push by the Montreal Canadiens to win their series in six, while the New York Rangers came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Washington Capitals. The Lightning had a lot of success against the Rangers during the regular season, sweeping the three-game series and limiting New York to seven goals in those games, but the Rangers are the early favorites to win, so it’s anyone’s series right now. With that, let’s take a look at this series and break down who will be heading to the Stanley Cup Finals in two weeks.
Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers
Prediction: New York in six
I had to think about this one long and hard, but I believe the Rangers have what it takes to make it back to the Cup finals for the second year in a row. Alain Vigneault’s team hasn’t been firing on all cylinders this post season—averaging only two goals-per-game (15th in the playoffs) up until now but have the best goals-against average of all the teams remaining (1.67 GA/GP). Of all the remaining teams left, New York is the only team not in the top four of scoring (ANA 3.89 G/GP (1st), CHI 3.2 G/GP (3rd) and TBL 2.62 G/GP (4th)). The only Ranger to crack the top-30 in scoring after two rounds is center Derick Brassard (5G, 3A). That’s not good. The Rangers success will come down to one man: Henrik Lundqvist. Everyone likes to talk about how much the Canadiens rely on Carey Price to win games, but no team has relied on their goalie more in the playoffs than New York. The 33-year-old has a 1.60 GAA and a stellar .944 SV% after two rounds, and if he can continue to post numbers like that against the Lightning, they have almost no chance.
For the Lightning, it’s pretty much Déjà vu. Just like their matchup with Montreal, they get to face a team that doesn’t score a lot of goals (MTL: 2.08, NYR: 2.00), is excellent defensively (MTL: 2.42 GA/GP, NYR: 1.67 GA/GP) and that averages a lot of shots on goal (MTL: 34.7 S/GP, 32.2 S/GP). The key for Tampa is to do exactly what they did against the Habs—get to the net and make life difficult for the opposing goalie. The so call “second line” of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov have been the best line for the Lightning in the playoffs, and they will need to be even better in round three. Steven Stamkos ended his goal drought against Montreal—scoring three goals in six games—and for all the criticism he’s taken about not producing, he has ten points (3G, 7A) in 13 games. Outside of those four, secondary scoring hasn’t done much, and with Ryan Callahan a game-time decision for game one after emergency appendectomy surgery, Jon Cooper’s team will need to find a way to get more from his bottom six.
The battle in net will be where the series is won or lost. Ben Bishop was great games one through three, but stumbled in game four before coming up big in game six. If the Rangers have been watching film on Bishop, his glove side seems to be the weak spot. He gave up two softies to Desharnais and Pacioretty, and if that continues to be a weakness for Bishop moving forward, he could see more rough nights like he did in game four. Lundqvist for his part doesn’t seem to have very many holes. There’s no question that he likes to play deep in his net, but he’s only given up three or more goals twice since the tart of the playoffs—one being a 42 save performance in game six against Washington.
Ultimately, the Rangers are the better team on paper. I still believe that experience and defense win championships, and the Rangers have both. Tampa will be a challenge for the blue shirts, but their depth is questionable and Bishop’s inconsistency at times may cost his team a game or two. See you in the finals, New York.
All stats provided by NHL.com