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Lightning practice at Madison Square Garden ahead of Game 1

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning have already faced their Eastern Conference Final opposition three times this season.

The Lightning defeated the New York Rangers in all three meetings, including twice at Madison Square Garden, where the Bolts will open the series with Games 1 and 2 on Saturday and Monday, respectively.

Tampa Bay outscored the Rangers 15-7 over those three games, but the Lightning are expecting a much different opponent this time around.

“I’m not sure when we played them we saw their best,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “I know we played extremely well when we played them. The last game here, we won that game, but the Rangers are probably looking at that game saying they deserved a better fate. Everything we shot was going in the net.”

Before playing the Lightning for the first time in the regular season on November 17, the Rangers owned a pedestrian 7-6-4 record.

After losing to the Lightning in their final meeting on December 1, the Rangers would go 42-13-3 over their next 58 games and earn the Presidents’ Trophy for having the best regular season record in the NHL.

“It seems playing deep into the spring is something the Rangers are getting used to and start playing their best hockey, especially when they come back from a 3-1 deficit against a really good Washington team,” Cooper said. “This is going to be a tough series.”

Cooper feels both teams play a similar, fast-paced brand of hockey, much like the Lightning saw when they faced the Montreal Canadiens in the Second Round.

“If you’re going to look at some of the quicker, faster teams in the league, you’d have to say Tampa and the Rangers are both up there,” Cooper said. “Both teams like to push the pace. We just played a team that was similar in that nature [Montreal], so I think hopefully that’s got us in that, we can play that way again against the Rangers.”

New York has advanced to the Eastern Conference Final for the third time in four seasons and second year in a row.

“I think they have a reputation now of being a hard team to play against,” said Lightning center Brian Boyle, who spent the previous five seasons with the Rangers before joining the Lightning in the offseason. “…Obviously they had the run last year, a lot of the same guys. We have a lot of respect for them as a team. They’re well-coached. They play with a lot of structure, and they have guys that can score. They can all defend, and they obviously have (Henrik Lundqvist) in net.”

CALLAHAN HOPEFUL FOR GAME 1

Ryan Callahan again skated with the rest of his Lightning teammates at Friday’s practice session at Madison Square Garden and didn’t appear limited by the emergency appendectomy he underwent four days earlier.

Callahan said he “felt pretty good” during practice and “did a lot more today” than during the light skate he went through on Thursday at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum before the team departed for New York City.

“I’ll see how I feel tomorrow morning,” Callahan said.

Cooper said Callahan is “day-to-day” and it will be up to Callahan to decide how much pain he can tolerate.

“We’re certainly not going to put him in a situation where he can get hurt worse, but we’ve been told everything’s well,” Cooper said. “It’s definitely sore, but every day, it’s getting better. Ultimately, it’s going to come down to Ryan Callahan and how much pain he’s in. But, he said he was feeling pretty good out there today, so we’ll see how it is tomorrow.”

Cooper reiterated Callahan won’t do any further damage to himself by playing in Game 1.

“He’s a pretty tough kid, so I would expect he’d come back probably quicker than most,” Cooper said.

The Lightning are 24-3-0 when Callahan scores, dating back to last season. Callahan owns a plus-seven plus-minus rating in the playoffs, tied for fourth-best in the NHL.

WINGING IT

After moving from center to wing for Game 5 of the Montreal series, Steven Stamkos scored in two consecutive games, including tallying the game-winning goal in Game 6 to close out the Canadiens four-games-to-two.

Before the position switch, Stamkos was held without a shot in Games 3 and 4. The Lightning captain said the move to the right side has been beneficial.

“I think with playing on the wing, it’s definitely a little different,” Stamkos said. “Your responsibility isn’t as big or great as playing center. For me, I felt like my legs have been a little better, got some pucks in space coming down the wing, being able to get some shots. That was a factor for a couple games, not being able to generate much. “

Stamkos skated on a line with Valtteri Filppula at center and Alex Killorn on the left wing at Friday’s practice, like he did the last two games of the Montreal series. Stamkos said that combination allows him to be more of a playmaker while utilizing Filppula’s exceptional distribution skills.

“I know (Filppula’s) trying to get me the puck in (good) situations, so it’s worked out well so far and we’ll see how it goes,” Stamkos said. “But definitely been able to, in my opinion, get some more quality chances and been able to use my speed down the wing a little more and get some more pucks on net.”

SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS

Despite going up against his friend and former teammate Marty St. Louis in the Eastern Conference Final, Stamkos said this playoff series is no different from any other. Both teams have gone through the reunion with St. Louis, first when the Lightning visited New York on November 17 and later when St. Louis returned to Tampa for the first time when the Lightning hosted the Rangers on November 26.

“When it first happens and you play them the first time and there’s still some emotions and Marty’s first game back in Tampa, I think we’re all over that to be honest,” Stamkos said. “I know you guys are going to be talking about the storylines, but for us, we’ve kind of turned the page and me too.”

Stamkos said he and St. Louis are still in contact with one another, but not as much as when they were teammates. St. Louis sent Stamkos a congratulatory text when the Lightning closed out the Canadiens in the Second Round, and Stamkos replied back saying he hoped to see St. Louis and the Rangers lining up opposite the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.

“It’s always great to see your friends -- and, obviously, he’s a special one -- do well, and you want them to do well until you play them,” Stamkos said. “And then you obviously want to come out on top, your team wants to come out on top. I think if you ask both of us, that’s the same answer.”

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