When the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers drop the puck on Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports), I think we're likely to see a very similar game to what we saw in Game 1 on Saturday. At even strength, the Rangers have shown they're a really great team and they don't give much up. Tampa Bay's only goal in Game 1 came as a result of its power play, and otherwise I thought the Rangers had the Lightning locked down.
The thing you have to realize is the Rangers are basically getting to exercise the same strategy they've already used twice in the Stanley Cup Playoffs so far. They have to shut down the big gun. Otherwise New York is complete enough as a team that the rest will take care of itself. Against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Rangers had to shut down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Against the Washington Capitals, it was shutting down Alex Ovechkin.
Now the Rangers need to shut down Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson. It's essentially the same mode and it's a lot of coach Alain Vigneault matching up certain lines and certain defensemen against certain opposing players. That kind of matching and strategy, however, breeds tight games, particularly if the Rangers won't have the advantage of last change with three games in Tampa Bay. Overall, I don't think Game 1 gave us any big surprises, and I don't see any reason to think this won't be another battle of attrition for the Rangers and another long series.
THE LIGHTNING'S HOPE
The one guy who can be the equalizer for Tampa Bay is Ben Bishop. I thought he was great in Game 1, especially early on when the Rangers were really dominating. If he can keep New York at bay, the Lightning will have the time to get their offense going and find some way to exploit New York's suffocating defense. The Rangers love to keep it along the boards and in the corners, particularly in their own zone. The Lightning have to find some room on the ice. They need to find space in the middle of the ice if they're going to get their offense going.
New York managed to keep the puck out of the open areas and took away the stretch pass for the most part. In fact, the best break chance of the game, I thought, belonged to New York's Derek Stepan, who had a great opportunity to score that was shut down by Bishop.
Bishop's play will be crucial if Tampa Bay is going to have a chance in this series, but I also think the Lightning proved they can compete with the Rangers all around. It was still only a one-goal game. I expect the Lightning to be better in Game 2, but of course the Rangers might be a little better also.
MARTY IN THE MIDDLE
This series is unusual in that so many play key players have been a part of both teams. Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, Dan Boyle and Anton Stralman have all played for Tampa Bay and New York, and in the case of everyone but Dan Boyle, they've all played for the opposition recently. Still, I don't think Brian Boyle or Stralman's departure from New York were all that acrimonious, and Callahan, while he was traded, was well-liked by the Rangers and their fans.
Martin St. Louis, however, is a different matter. St. Louis is arguably the greatest player in Lightning history, and the way he left the team, with his trade demand and his demand that he only go to the Rangers, makes his position in this series more complex. I know St. Louis has played in Tampa Bay as a member of the Rangers already, but that was only in the regular season. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a different animal, and I expect this to be very emotional and very intense for him when the series shifts to Tampa Bay on Wednesday.
Given how he left and how important these games are, I think it will be very interesting to see how the crowd responds to St. Louis in Tampa Bay. If the Rangers are up 2-0 in the series, that might make it even more of a difficult environment for St. Louis to focus and deal with what could be a hostile crowd.
DISCIPLINE WILL BE THE DIFFERENCE
I think the Rangers are going to win this series because of how tight and low-scoring it will be. I do think Tampa Bay will find a way to open up some guys and play better, but for the Lightning to win this series they will need to thrive on the power play. The Rangers are too good 5-on-5, and the last change at home will give them the matchups they want and make it very difficult for Tampa Bay to score.
The problem for Tampa Bay, however, is that the Rangers are a disciplined, experienced group. They haven't taken a lot of bad penalties in the playoffs so far. They're not cross-checking guys from behind late in the game or anything like that, and even physical players like Tanner Glass have been very smart about how to establish a strong presence.
Sometimes a fast team like Tampa Bay can take advantage of another team at even strength because the defense will play looser so it doesn't take penalties. I don't see that being a problem here. The Rangers are a great team defensively, but they're also a smart one. Ultimately, I think that's why they'll be playing for the Stanley Cup.