In the immediate aftermath of the Lightning defeating the Canadiens last night, in two different instances I had the exact same inquiry thrown at me by two separate NHL fans. It's a question we'll have answered in perhaps 10 hours or so but one that stirs up a bit of uncertainty (at least for me).
Nice little conundrum, ain't it? Impulse might have a fan snap to say either club for one reason or another, but more thought makes it a real debatable question.
You have the New York Rangers, whom the Lightning swept during regular season play, who ended up winning the NHL's Presidents' Trophy for the best regular season record. The Rags overcame the daunting task of playing without stalwart backstop Henrik Lundqvist (by way of stalwart backup backstop that ain't afraid of no ghosts, Cam Talbot). Ticking through the roster and what they bring would circumvent the return confrontation that most Lightning fans have come to mind the minute Bolts/Rags series is suggested: #26 Martin St. Louis.
We went through this in the fall, being confronted with the March 2014 departure of St. Louis from the Tampa Bay Lightning roster. It's been a year now since Marty put the extra sting on his trade request, but the hurt is still there for many. St. Louis only has 4 assists in the playoffs but to face his old team would likely be a motivator (and vice versa).
There is the flip side of such a series, that being Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan (if he recovers in time) and Anton Stralman. Unlike St. Louis, none of these former Rangers asked out. Rangers fans felt their own sting having to play against them (not so much "why did you do this?" as "why did you let them go, Glen Sather?").
The playoffs bring a lot of side stories off-ice instead of on it. A Lightning-Rangers series is ideal for that. If both teams are firing on all cylinders, it should bring some great drama and competition on ice as well.
And then there's the Washington Capitals, the Lightning's old Southeast Division brethren. Most of the roster makeup on the Bolts has shifted from those days of division rivalry (and the 2011 playoff series sweep of the Caps by the Bolts). The standard of Alex Ovechkin is still very much there and still very much an intimidating factor (58 goals and 28 assists will do that), as are Nicklas Backstorm, Jay Beagle, Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, Mike Green on defense. In goal, there's been a turn of talent in the crease but the name is just as familiar to some on the Lightning roster as it is to fans who have heard it cited the last few seasons: Braden Holtby spent playing time in the AHL with the Hershey Bears from 2009 through 2013... That gave head coach Jon Cooper, the TKO Trio, Alex Killorn and others some exposure to what Holtby can do in the crease.
While the Lightning swept the Rangers in the regular season, the Capitals bested the Bolts in 3 games - winning 2 of the 3 contests and outscoring the Lightning 12-9 in those games.
Who would you rather see in the Eastern Conference Finals? Take the poll and leave a comment below to further discuss the match-up.