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Eastern Conference Finals Preview

Photo by Trevor Grout | Scrum Sports

For the sixth time in the last eight seasons the Tampa Bay Lightning will play in the Eastern Conference Finals. This is their third consecutive appearance in the series that catapults the winning team into the Stanley Cup Final. This is the path to Hockey’s Holy Grail. Only the New York Rangers stand in the way of a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final. 

The Lightning have been the pinnacle NHL team for the last decade. In the 12 seasons of the Jeffrey Vinik era, this is their seventh Conference Finals. Safe to say this franchise has been the class of the league. This Conference Finals series can be the next big step into NHL immortality. You see, beating the New York Rangers puts the Lightning in the position of winning a third consecutive Stanley Cup. Let’s look at the Eastern Conference Finals in depth. 

Offense

Tampa scored a hair over three goals a game in the Florida series. They virtually replicated what they did in the Toronto series where they averaged 3.28 goals a game. They averaged 3.25 against Florida. Yes this is very consistent. In the second round sweep against Florida they did not have Brayden Point. That makes the scoring consistency more impressive. It means guys are stepping up. This is what championship teams do. Despite their success in offensive consistency, the Lightning are averaging less goals than their opponents. The Rangers are averaging slightly more per game (3.43) than the Lightning (3.27). On paper it looks pretty even until you peel back some layers. 

In the 14 games they’ve played this postseason, the Rangers have only faced a number one goalie in only one game. In round one, they faced former Lightning goalie, Louis Domingue in six games against Pittsburgh. This is a goalie who has played in three NHL games over the last two seasons. In round two, New York faced Carolina’s number two goalie in the seven game series. If the Rangers struggled with backup goalies and backups of a backup, what are they going to do against Andrei Vasilevskiy? 

Both teams have legit scoring threats. Tampa has Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and two bottom six players tied for the team lead in playoff goalies (5) in Ross Colton and Corey Perry. New York has Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panerin and 52 goal scorer Chris Kreider. Both teams are facing their toughest goaltending in these playoffs in Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkin for the Rangers. A former Vezina Trophy winner against the probable Vezina winner for this season. Offense will be a premium in this Eastern Conference Finals.  Advantage: Slight to Lightning

Defense

The Lightning played an incredibly strong team defense in their round two series against the Florida Panthers. The Panthers were the first NHL team in over 30 years to average over 4 goals a game this season. Tampa held them to three goals in four games. When a team blocks over 16 shots every 60 minutes, they are committed to team defense. When that same team has a goaltender such as Vasilevskiy, it could be lights out, New York. Much is written about Vasilevskiy and his prowess especially in the playoffs and rightfully so but don’t forget the players in front of him. Led by Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak and Cal Foote. Hedman is at 4.79 blocks per 60 minutes and the other three are over 5 blocks per 60. In fact, Foote is a hair under 7 blocks per 60 and McDonagh is a mini-wall at almost 8 blocks per 60. This is commitment to prevent goals from the opposition. 

The defensemen of New York are doing their share in front of Shesterkin too. They have three players averaging over 5 blocks per 60 minutes in Justin Braun, Ryan Lindgren and Jacob Trouba. Their top D-man in ice time is K’Andre Miller at over 25 minutes a game. This is Hedman territory but Miller has the least amount of blocks among the Ranger’s defensive corps. The question in this series is which group of defenders will make it easier for their outstanding goalie? Blocking shots, getting the puck out of their zone, eliminating time and space for the opposition. Which team will step up? I think when you’re down to one of four teams still in the hunt for Lord Stanley’s Cup, it’ll come down to experience. Advantage: Slight to Lightning

Special Teams 

It’s challenging to write about sports without using well worn cliches. I’m guilty of it as much as the next person so forgive yet another. Your goalie is the biggest penalty killer. I say this because the Rangers power play is operating at a 32.5% clip. They are converting almost 1 out of 3 chances with the extra man. Time to peel another layer. They were facing backup goalies and backups to backup goalies. Ranger fans should not expect a 32% success rate in this series. 

The Lightning penalty killers are killing 87.8% of their opponents power play opportunities. While this is good enough for the top PK percentage of the four remaining teams, knowing they faced the #1 and #5 regular season leaders in power play in Toronto and Florida. Well now they will face the #4 team in regular season power play success. I’m not convinced that New York will fare any better on the power play than either Toronto or Florida. When the Lightning have the power play could be the determining factor in the series. So far in the playoffs, they are scoring at almost 23%. Considering they didn’t face a backup goalie in any of their 11 games, their success is at least noteworthy. Regarding the New York penalty killing units, they did an admirable job in both of their completed playoff series. 

Coming into this series, it appears even on special teams. Whichever team wins the special teams battles, will likely win this series. Advantage: Even

Goaltending

Vasilevskiy’s resume is well known. His record after a playoff loss the last two postseasons is amazing. If that isn’t mentioned, then his numbers in elimination games is the topic. At 27 years old, he has his name etched twice on the Cup and going for a third. Vasilevskiy is mentioned along with the game’s greatest goalies nowadays. Shesterkin had a monster year. Frankly, his regular season save percentage (93.5%) and goals against (2.07) were better than any season Vasilevskiy has had in his career. This includes Vasilevskiy’s Vezina winning year in 2019. 

This goalie matchup will come down to which one plays more consistently as is expected. Both goalies can take over a game. Will Vasilevskiy play like he did in the Florida series? Can Shesterkin play like he did this regular season? Which of these two will bounce back after a loss? All things equal, give me the tried and true. One of the reasons we hear so much about Vasilevskiy’s postseason performances is because he has brought that A game series after series in the last two and a half postseasons. For Shesterkin, he has never played under the microscope equivalent to the Eastern Conference Finals. To his credit, he stepped up in the Carolina series. Ultimately, can Shesterkin meet the Vasilevskiy performance level in this series? Advantage: Slight to Lightning  

Intangibles

Both coaches have had playoff success. Gerard Gallant took the Las Vegas Golden Knights to the Cup Final in their inaugural season in 2018. Jon Cooper has two Stanley Cups to his name and is about to go to his sixth Conference Finals since 2015. Gallant has his Rangers in the playoffs for only the second time in the last five seasons. Cooper and his squad are a perennial playoff team. 

Brayden Point and Brandon Hagel are nursing injuries for Tampa. No one of import is hurting in the New York locker room. We should see Hagel very soon and there is a possibility that Point returns before the end of this series. If both come back healthy and produce, the series will slant towards the Lightning. Having not played in over a week could help the injured Lightning team. It could also hurt them with rust. The Rangers just won their last series the day before yesterday. They could be a team with an awful lot of jump and momentum. 

New York has home ice where they are 6-1 in the playoffs so far. Their road record is a respectable 2-4. The Lightning are 4-1 at Amalie and 4-2 on the road. Ultimately, the playoff tested team could hold an advantage over the upstart New Yorkers. Advantage: Slight to Lightning

Prediction for the Eastern Conference Finals

This series should be tougher to win than the Florida series. The Rangers are going to be a tough matchup. They are very similar to the Lightning in a lot of aspects to their game. Good defensively, a few offensive stars and a great goalie. Prediction: The experienced Lightning will take this in six. 

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