Let’s face it, there is no doubt at all what the focus of this series is going to be - goaltending. In one corner the Tampa Bay Lightning will roll out the reigning Conn Smythe winner and perennial Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy. In the other corner will be Igor Shesterkin, who may be a unanimous choice for this year’s Vezina and a darkhorse for the Hart Trophy. The Eastern Conference Final is going to come down to which one of them blinks first.
I wish there was a more in-depth analysis of this match-up, but that’s pretty much it. These teams are more similar than you might realize at first glance. Both teams rely on their goaltender to bail them out of tough situations and hope they get enough offense from their power play to win games. They also both rely on blocking a ton of shots to help their netminders out.
As has been mentioned a few times, this is a rematch of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals, a seven-game series that the Lightning eventually won (becoming the only team to beat the Rangers in a Game Seven in Madison Square Garden). Since then, the two franchises have taken different paths to getting back to this point. The Lightning have kept their core together, adding a part here and there while the Rangers completely dismantled their team and rebuilt through some smart trades and free agent signings. Chris Kreider and his 52 goals this season is the only Blueshirt left that watched the Lightning celebrate their trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015.
So none of that past really matters. The regular season where the Lightning went 0-2-1 against the Rangers and were outscored 9-4 doesn’t seem particularly relevant either. Well, maybe Shesterkin’s 91-of-95 shots stopped matters a little. The first two meetings between the teams took place as the calendar turned to 2022 and the Lightning were recovering from injuries and COVID. The third match-up was a well-played 2-1 win for the Rangers that will be a little closer to what we should expect from this series.
The oddsmakers don’t seem to be taking much stock in the regular season either as for the first time in this postseason, the Lightning are favored to win a series. DraftKings currently has Tampa Bay as -175 favorites to advance to the Stanley Cup with New York as a +150 underdog. It’s unlikely those numbers change much unless New York wins both Games One and Two on home ice.
A lot of folks think the Lightning are going to win this series fairly easily after what they did to Florida in the second round. Sure, that’s possible, but in order to do so they’re going to need to be able to solve Shesterkin. Most likely, they’re going to have to do it without Brayden Point. While there is no official designation for his status I think we’re at the point where him appearing in any games would be a bonus. So get used to more 11/7 line-ups from Coach Cooper.
The good news is that the Lightning are going to get their chances. Through the first two rounds of the playoffs at 5v5 the New York Rangers have an expected goals against of 3.65 per 60 minutes. The only team that had a higher number according to Natural Stat Trick was the Los Angeles Kings. Even the Edmonton Oilers and their lackluster attention to defense at times is posting a 2.84 xGA/60 through two rounds (the Lightning are at 2.56).
New York has also allowed 17.53 High Danger Chances per 60 minutes at 5v5, far and away the most in the playoffs. They offset some of that danger by blocking 15.82 shots per 60 minutes at 5v5 and having Shesterkin do his thing in net. Evolving Hockey has him at 15.2 goals saved above expected in all situations, by far the best performance by a goaltender in the postseason.
In order to make that number go down, the Lightning are going to have to win the front of the net battles in the offensive zone. They should be able to set up and get their shots from the blueline like they like. They will need to get the shots off quickly to avoid the blockers and set up the deflection and rebound chances in front of the Rangers goaltender. Zone entries and puck battles will be key to scoring. As a young goaltender, Shesterkin relies a little more on athleticism to make stops than positioning, kind of like Vasilevksiy did early in his career. If they can get him moving around, it should open up opportunities.
While Point is out, Brandon Hagel should be in for Game One and he, along with Nick Paul and Alex Killorn, could be key factors for the Lightning offense. They will need some of the bigger players in front banging around for those rebounds and put-back opportunities. Expect the Rangers to focus on trying to be physical with the big-time players like Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Jacob Trouba in particular has been a physical force in both series, his hit on Sidney Crosby turned around their first series and he knocked Seth Jarvis out with a (much cleaner) hit in Game Seven against Carolina.
Defensively, along with Trouba, the Ranger have a couple of really good players in Adam Fox and K’Andre Miller along with some solid role players in Ryan Lindgren, Justin Braun, and Braden Schneider. Fox, the second leading scorer for New York with 18 points, has developed into a nice all around blueliner in the mold of Victor Hedman.
Upfront the Rangers can roll three lines pretty reliably with the bulk of their offense coming from the top line of Chris Kreider (8 goals, 3 assists), Mika Zibanejad (7 goals, 12 assists), and Frank Vatrano (3 goals, 5 assists). Artemi Panarin (4 goals, 7 assists) can find the right match-ups on the second line with Ryan Strome and deadline pick-up Andrew Copp. The “Kid Line” of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko could be a difference maker if they find their scoring touch. The trio has 8 even-strength goals through the first two rounds. A rugged fourth line led by old friend Barclay Goodrow will be tasked with the bulk of the defensive responsibilities.
Scoring at 5v5 hasn’t really come easy for both teams. The Rangers have scored 29 of their 43 goals at 5v5 play while the Lightning have scored 18 of their 36 in that situation. If the Lightning can slow down the Rangers power play, currently rolling at a 32.5% success rate, New York could have trouble keeping up offensively with the Bolts.
Also giving them trouble will be the fact that they will be facing a number one goaltender for an entire series. Through their first 14 games, they’ve faced a back-up or third-string goaltender in 13 of those games. Trying to score on Andrei Vasilevskiy is a little different than trying to score on Louis Domingue or Antti Raanta.
Defensively for the Lightning, expect more of the same from the first two rounds - keep the play in front of them, block shots, limit prime scoring opportunities, and let Vasilevskiy do his thing. At this point of the season thing are kept pretty simple. As long as they execute their game plan they should be able to win this series.
That being said, weird things happen in this sport. The Lightning may be the better team on paper, but so was Pittsburgh in Round One and Carolina in Round Two and New York found a way to beat both of those teams. Tampa Bay can’t take them for granted and start making Stanley Cup plans just yet. After their long rest, they have to find that hint of desperation they had in Games 6 and 7 and the ability to impose their will like they did for the whole Florida series.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in six games