Ben Bishop and the Tampa Bay Lightning were 3-0 against Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers during the regular season. The great thing about the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that those stats are thrown out and it boils down to who’s going to be the better team over a maximum of seven games.
We all know the Tampa-New York connections and we’ll be hearing too much about them over the next two weeks, specifically Martin St. Louis. But this series is a matchup of a team who’s hot offensively against one who is hot defensively. Something will have to give for one to escape the Eastern Conference Final and move on to the Stanley Cup Final.
Here are three things that will make or break the Rangers and Lightning.
New York Rangers
1. Can their penalty kill minimize Tampa’s power play? New York has the best penalty kill of the final four teams and are ranked fourth overall in these playoffs (89.3-percent success rate). It’s a solid kill unit whose success from the regular season (sixth overall, 84.3-percent) has carried over into the postseason. In the playoffs, of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin, the Rangers only allowed one goal between them against the extra man. Now comes the Lightning who scored seven power play goals in Round 2. Jon Cooper talked about how a power play can carry momentum for a team, but with the Rangers having killed their last 13 man advantages faced, can they swing things in their favor?
2. Is a track meet scheduled? The Rangers and Lightning are two of the fastest teams in the NHL. Heck, the Rangers even have a guy named “Fast” on their roster just to hammer home that point. Both teams enjoy activating their defensemen into the rush, but does New York want to go toe-to-toe with the Lightning in this department? Their defense hasn’t had to deal with as much speed as Tampa contains, so quick transitions could cause the Ranger blueliners fits.
3. Will Mats Zuccarello return? Zuccarello has been sidelined since Game 5 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins after taking a puck to head. His availability beyond the second round is “in doubt,” reported the New York Post. He was in attendance for Game 7 versus Washington and head coach Alain Vigneault said the forward was “coming along.” His absence hurts New York’s secondary scoring, and with St. Louis still without a goal, Zuccarello, who has scored 34 times over the last two seasons, coming back for this series would provide a boost to an offense that could use one.
Tampa Bay Lightning
1. Can they break Henrik Lundqvist? No goalie remaining has a better goals against average (1.60), even strength save percentage (.945) or history in Game 7s. Six of New York’s playoff wins this spring have come via 2-1 victories, with Lundqvist rising to the occasion when needed, despite the Rangers allowing 29.6 shots per game. Tampa’s averaged 2.62 goals per game these playoffs, while the Blueshirts have had their issues scoring averaging 2 goals for per game. The Lightning have to manage to bring Lundqvist back down to earth.
2. What’s next for “The Triplets”? The hottest line in hockey is the trio of Tyler “Conn” Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, who have combined for 17 of Tampa’s 34 goals this postseason. Johnson leads the team with eight and is one of the Conn Smythe Trophy favorites heading into Round 3. Kucherov didn’t score in Round 1, but erupted against the Montreal Canadiens scoring six times in six games. Palat, meanwhile, enters the conference final with five points in his last four games. They've been the driving force behind the Lightning offense so far, and will be relied upon to keep the pressure on Lundqvist.
3. Win the neutral zone. Speed and an aggressive approach to turn pucks over in the neutral zone will lead to scoring chances, and with the arsenal Tampa possesses, more often than not that will result in goals -- and goals will be hard to come by with a certain Swedish netminder playing at a high level at the moment.
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