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After a decisive 6-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 on Monday, the New York Rangers will will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. By no means will it be an easy task, as the Rangers are considered major underdogs against a team that is in the running for its third straight Stanley Cup. That said, the Rangers have proven during both the regular season and the playoffs that they are by no means a pushover.
As far as regular-season records go, these teams were nearly identical. Both finished with 110 points, though the Rangers had a slightly better record of 52-24-6 compared to the Bolts' 51-23-8.
Let’s take a closer look as to what we can expect from this series.
The 2021-22 season was a major breakout for the Rangers. While most expected they would improve after having missed the playoffs in each of the previous four seasons (2020 qualifying round not included), no one imagined they would finish second in the Metropolitan Division.
Head coach Gerard Gallant has done a ton in his first season to help improve this group, and was recently named a Jack Adams finalist as a result of his great work. That said, he has had several individuals step up with outstanding seasons, none better than goaltender Igor Shesterkin. The 26-year-old had one of the best years we have ever seen from a netminder, compiling a 2.07 goals-against average (GAA) along with a .935 save percentage (SV%) in 53 games. He is not only considered the heavy favorite to win the Vezina Trophy but was also named a Hart Trophy finalist.
While Shesterkin is the undoubted MVP of this Rangers squad, they have plenty of other talent as well. Artemi Panarin has been considered one of the game's best offensive wingers for some time now, and is coming off of a career-high 96 points. Meanwhile, Chris Kreider shocked many this season with a career-high 52 goals. Last but not least up front is Mika Zibanejad, who is not only leading his team in playoff scoring but registered a career-high 81 points in the regular season.
As if that weren’t enough, the Rangers also boast the reigning Norris Trophy winner in Adam Fox. Despite not being named a finalist for the award this season, he was outstanding yet again with 74 points in 78 games and is a true threat every single time he hits the ice.
As far as the playoffs go, the Rangers have proven to be a resilient bunch. In their first-round series, they trailed the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 before going on to win three straight. They then found themselves in a 2-0 hole versus the Hurricanes, but once again managed to scratch and claw their way to a series victory. While their never-give-up mentality is impressive, the Lightning are not a team they will want to fall behind if they have any chance to come out of the East.
The Lightning's credentials speak for themselves. You don’t win back-to-back Cups by accident. Not only do they boast plenty of skill, but their desire to win is what truly sets them apart from others.
At times throughout the regular season, it felt as though they were coasting, perhaps trying to preserve some energy in hopes of another lengthy playoff run. That said, they still finished third in the Atlantic Division and just five points shy of the Toronto Maple Leafs for second.
Leading the way for them this season was Steven Stamkos, who broke the 100-point barrier for the first time in his career with 106. He was far from the only Bolt who made massive contributions, however, as Nikita Kucherov recorded 69 points despite playing in just 47 games, and both Alex Killorn and Brayden Point were rock solid.
In net, Andrei Vasilevskiy continues to prove why he is the best goalie in the world. He wasn’t as good as we have seen from him in the past during the regular season with a 2.49 GAA along with a .916 SV%, but has been outstanding once again in the playoffs, particularly in the second round versus the Florida Panthers.
As good as Fox is for the Rangers, it is hard to argue that the best defenceman in this series is Victor Hedman. The 31-year-old has been nominated for the Norris Trophy in each of the past six seasons, and is coming off of a career-high 85 points. He has been as big a part as anyone as to why the Lightning have had the success they have over the past two years.
It appeared the Lightning’s time with the Cup may have been coming to an end in Round 1 when the Maple Leafs took a 3-2 series lead over them. However, they were able to take the series in seven, and then went on to sweep the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers. It's safe to say this team is playing with a ton of confidence right now.
Though many had their minds set on a Lightning-Hurricanes Eastern Conference Final, there is plenty to look forward to in this series. The best storyline of all will be the head-to-head showdown between Shesterkin and Vasilevskiy.
Vasilevskiy has been regarded as the game's best netminder over the past few years, in large part due to his ability to become nearly unbeatable in the playoffs, particularly in the tail end of any given series. At just 27 years old, he already has a Vezina Trophy along with a Conn Smythe to his name, and has a chance to add to that legacy this year.
#NYR Igor Shesterkin on his matchup with the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy: “He is the best goalie in the world right now:”
— Mollie Walker (@MollieeWalkerr) May 31, 2022
Shesterkin, on the other hand, is newly minted as one of the game's elite. He is the heavy front-runner for this year's Vezina Trophy, and has been the Rangers' best player through the first two rounds of the playoffs. He is highly competitive and wants to be known as the best in the world. What better way to do it than by outshining Vasilevskiy?
While several other factors will come into effect in this series, the winner truly may come down to which goaltender is better than the other. Both teams are terrific offensively, making the Eastern Conference Finals must-watch TV.
Despite being viewed as underdogs heading into this matchup, the Rangers can take comfort in the fact that they swept their season series versus the Lightning. They met up on three occasions, the first coming on New Year's Eve in what was a 4-3 shootout victory for Gallant’s squad. They then went on to defeat them 4-0 just two nights later before a 2-1 win in mid-March.
Zibanejad led the way with four points across those three contests, all of which were goals. As for the Lightning, no one blew up on the scoresheet, but several had two points in Ondrej Palat, Killorn, Stamkos, and Hedman.
To this point in the playoffs, the Rangers have the second-best power play with a conversion rate of 32.5 per cent. The Lightning have the best penalty kill of all remaining teams at 87.8 per cent. Jon Cooper’s team will need to be sure its great play when down a man continues in order to have success, although the Rangers have also put up plenty of offence in these playoffs at 5-on-5.
While players are always banged up in the playoffs, the Rangers are fortunate in that there are no players currently on the shelf aside from Sammy Blais, who has been out of the lineup since November. That said, there have been plenty of rumors suggesting Panarin may be battling an injury, which will certainly be something to keep an eye on moving forward.
As for the Lightning, they were forced to play the entire second round without Point. The 26-year-old was injured in Round 1 versus the Leafs, and while he is making progress towards a return, it is still unknown when he will be ready to go.
Lightning in six.
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