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Preview: Rangers face Lightning in return trip to ECF

by Staff

The New York Rangers are in the Eastern Conference Final for the third time in the past four seasons and have a chance to become the first team since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008 and 2009 to win the Prince of Wales Trophy two years in a row.

The Rangers earned this appearance with a 2-1 overtime win Wednesday in Game 7 of the second round against the Washington Capitals.

New York became the first team in NHL history to win a best-of-7 series after trailing 3-1 in back-to-back seasons. The Rangers defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round last season by winning the final three games.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2011, when they lost in seven games to the Boston Bruins. The Lightning haven't reached the Stanley Cup Final since 2004, when they won the championship with forward Martin St. Louis as their leading scorer and Dan Boyle as their top defenseman.

St. Louis and Boyle now play for New York. Former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, center Brian Boyle and defenseman Anton Stralman now play for Tampa Bay.

Callahan was traded to the Lightning in a transaction that brought St. Louis to New York on March 5, 2014. Boyle and Stralman signed with the Lightning as free agents this summer after helping the Rangers reach the Stanley Cup Final last season, where they lost to the Los Angeles Kings in five games.

The Rangers needed 12 games to reach this conference final. They eliminated the Penguins in five games in the first round and went the distance against the Capitals. Each of the games has been decided by one goal, including eight by a 2-1 score, and four in overtime. The Rangers are 6-2 in 2-1 games and 4-0 in overtime (all the OT games had a 2-1 score).

The Lightning needed 13 games to reach the conference final. They trailed the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in the first round before winning in seven games, and built a 3-0 lead against the Montreal Canadiens in the second round before clinching in Game 6.

Tampa Bay's line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat has combined for 17 goals and 14 assists.

Tampa Bay and New York have not played in five and a half months after playing three times between Nov. 17 and Dec. 1. Tampa Bay won all three by a combined 15-8.

"It's a team we had some problems with during the season," Lundqvist said. "But if there's one thing I learned, playoffs are a different story."

Coach Alain Vigneault hasn't been afraid to change lines when he senses things going awry. The perfect example was Game 7 against the Capitals, when Vigneault essentially benched St. Louis in the third period and put J.T. Miller up on the top line with Derick Brassard and Rick Nash. Miller brought life to that line and it started to create scoring chances.

Similarly, with Mats Zuccarello sidelined for the second round by an injury, Vigneault played a hunch and moved Jesper Fast up to play with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider. Fast played the detail-oriented hockey that line needed and made little plays that resulted in big goals, such as his touch pass off Stepan's faceoff win back to Keith Yandle that helped set up Stepan's series-clinching overtime winner against the Capitals. Fast had one goal and three assists against Washington.

Kreider was the Rangers' most effective forward in the second round. He scored four goals, including two in the first period of Game 6 and the tying goal with 1:41 remaining in the third period of Game 5. Stepan has been important in all areas and is tied with Brassard for the Rangers lead with eight points.

Nash hasn't scored as much as he'd like, but he's had some great chances, including his shorthanded breakaway in the first period of Game 7 against Washington. He has two goals and a Rangers-high 45 shots, including six in Game 7.

The third line of Dominic Moore, Kevin Hayes and Carl Hagelin arguably was New York's best in Game 7; they provide a combination of speed, power and strong forechecking.

Tampa Bay had success using lineups that featured 11 or 12 forwards.

"The Triplets" line of Johnson, Kucherov and Palat continues to be one of the most productive in the NHL. Johnson's eight goals lead the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Kucherov scored six goals against the Canadiens.

Captain Steven Stamkos has a point in the past five games, and three goals and seven assists in 13 playoff games. He moved to the wing to let Valtteri Filppula play center and give the top line more playmaking ability. Linemate Alex Killorn quietly has had a strong postseason with three goals and six assists.

Callahan, who did not play Game 6 against the Canadiens after having an appendectomy, will dictate the look of the other lines. At times Callahan will play with Stamkos, but he can be moved to the third line with more defensive-minded forwards Boyle and Cedric Paquette.

Steady and willing to take chances to create offensive opportunities is the best way to describe this defense.

Captain Ryan McDonagh has improved as the playoffs have gone on, which is impressive considering he started at a high level. McDonagh's two goals are game-winners, including in overtime of Game 5 against the Capitals. He played 29:02 in Game 7 and had an assist on Hayes' goal.

Partner Dan Girardi has been steady as a defensive, shot-blocking presence who has shown a willingness to jump into the rush by taking smart risks. He was particularly effective against Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin as the right-side defenseman matched up on him. Girardi leads Rangers defensemen with 48 blocked shots.

Marc Staal hasn't started many shifts in the offensive zone, so his possession numbers are the weakest on the Rangers (44.12 shot-attempts percentage), but his long reach and physicality have helped, particularly on the penalty kill.

Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein have had some good and bad moments, but Yandle's ability to produce offense is important, and Klein's physicality was noticeable against Washington. Yandle had an assist on Kreider's game-tying goal in Game 5 and on Stepan's overtime winner in Game 7.

Boyle left Game 7 midway through the third period after getting hit by Washington's Brooks Orpik. Matt Hunwick, who played in the first round while Klein was recovering from an injury, will play if Boyle can't.

Tampa Bay entered the playoffs with three of its top six defensemen dealing with injuries. But going into the Eastern Conference Final that group is at full health.

The top pairing of Stralman and Victor Hedman has been everything the Lightning could have hoped for. The Swedes have a natural chemistry, and Stralman's steady hand on the defensive end has allowed Hedman to have even more of a green light to contribute offensively. Each had 30 shifts in Game 6 against Montreal; Stralman played 23:41 and had an assist on Palat's power-play goal at the end of the second period.

Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison give the Lightning a physical presence. Coburn, who was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers prior to the NHL Trade Deadline, also proved to be an unlikely hero when he scored the game-winning goal against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 7 of the first round.

Andrej Sustr and Matthew Carle make up the third pair, and when coach Jon Cooper goes to seven defensemen he'll add Nikita Nesterov.

It's hard to keep finding new superlatives to describe Lundqvist's play and his importance to the Rangers. He has been their MVP through the first two rounds by a landslide and arguably is the leader for the Conn Smythe Trophy after two rounds.

The Rangers feed off of Lundqvist's calm and confidence. They have an 89.3 percent success rate on the penalty kill in large part because of their goalie.

Lundqvist's 1.60 goals-against average and .944 save percentage is the best among goalies who played past the first round. He's been this good with zero margin for error.

He allowed five goals on 110 shots in winning Games 5, 6 and 7 against Washington. He made 35 saves in Game 7 after 42 in Game 6. In New York's series-clinching wins, Lundqvist allowed two goals on 74 shots, including one on 38 shots against Pittsburgh.

Cam Talbot proved in the regular season that he is a capable backup. He was 16-4-3 with a 2.16 GAA and .929 save percentage when Lundqvist was out of the lineup from Feb. 4 to March 26 because of a vascular injury in his neck. Talbot has not played in the playoffs.

Ben Bishop has been excellent for much of the postseason, with a 1.81 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in 13 games. He's played his best when most needed, including a 31-save shutout against the Red Wings in Game 7 of the first round.

Bishop faced more shots and more scoring chances than Canadiens goalie Carey Price in five of those six games, but outside of a poor showing in Game 4 he was solid and allowed the Lightning to steal Games 1 and 3.

"The longer a series goes on it seems Ben gets better and better," Cooper said after the Game 6 win against Canadiens. "I look at how we played Game 7 against Detroit. We won the game, but Detroit controlled a lot of that game, but Ben was great and then we got the lead. Then I look at [Game 6] against the Canadiens and he stopped the big breakaway in the third period. The way Bishop played elevated the rest of our game."

Backup Andrei Vasilevskiy played in Game 4 of the second round after Bishop was pulled, allowing three goals on 26 shots.

Vigneault, who is a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for the fourth time, has coached a team into a conference final for the third time. He went to the Stanley Cup Final with the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 and with the Rangers last season.

The Rangers' approach, demeanor, professionalism and resiliency is a byproduct of Vigneault's optimistic, no-panic attitude.

It has taken him six playoff rounds to move into third place on the Rangers' list of coaching victories (21). The Rangers are 3-0 in Game 7s and 8-1 in games when they can be eliminated under Vigneault.

It's been a learning process for Cooper, but he deserves credit for his willingness to make adjustments during each series. He used 11 forwards and seven defensemen for the final four games of the first round against Detroit and won three of those games.

He made a bold move in Game 6 against Montreal by replacing Callahan with Jonathan Marchessault, an undrafted 24-year-old, instead of highly touted prospect Jonathan Drouin. Marchessault proved to be a solid, active body in the 11:15 of ice time he received.

Cooper is proving his success at lower levels was not a fluke. With Callahan's status uncertain, he'll have to continue to manage the lineup and find the hot hands.

A big reason the Rangers are in the conference final is because of their impressive penalty kill, which is 89.3 percent. They have faced Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Ovechkin and have allowed them to score one goal on 26 power-play opportunities.

The Penguins went 2-for-13, with each goal from their second unit in Game 2. Ovechkin scored on the Capitals' first shot on the power play in the second round, but they went 0-for-14 with 21 shots for the rest of the series.

New York's power play has at times looked disjointed and generally out of sync, but it has connected for some important goals, such as Hayes' game-tying goal 6:22 into the second period of Game 7 against Washington and Kreider's goal with 0.3 seconds left in the first period of Game 6.

The Rangers are 6-for-38 on the power play (15.8 percent); five of their goals have come in a win, including McDonagh's game-winner in Game 1 against the Penguins.

The Lightning were 7-for-20 (35 percent) on the power play in the second round and are at 18.0 percent for the playoffs. Palat's goal in Game 6 against the Canadiens gave the Lightning a 3-0 lead.

The power play has improved greatly since going 2-for-27 in the first round. The spacing has been better, and Tampa Bay is putting more pucks around the net, relying on tips and rebounds for scoring chances instead of set plays.

The penalty kill has an 86.7 percent success rate, but if Callahan isn't back for Game 1 it could have a negative effect on that unit. The Lightning help the Canadiens to 1-for-16 in the series.

Dominic Moore -- Moore was one of the Rangers' best forwards in Game 7 against the Capitals and has been one of their most consistent forwards in the playoffs even though he doesn't have the statistics to back it up.

Moore has one assist in 12 games, but his ability to create chaos as the first forechecker, play a big role on the penalty kill (2:05 shorthanded ice time per game), win important faceoffs (Rangers-best 53.1 percent) and get the puck to the net (18 shots on goal in the second round) have made him one of New York's most important players.

Moore started the playoffs on the fourth line, with Fast and Tanner Glass, and made it an effective group. Vigneault moved Moore to the third line against Washington and in Game 7 he, Hagelin and Hayes combined for one goal, eight shots on goal, and 18 total shot attempts.

Ondrej Palat
Left Wing - TBL
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 8
SOG: 14 | +/-: 3
Ondrej Palat -- Although Palat isn't as much of a goal-scoring threat as his "Triplet" linemates, Johnson and Kucherov, he seems to make good things happen every time he's on the ice. He's at his best in situations when the Lighting need it most.

In Game 6 against Montreal, he had an assist on Kucherov's goal that gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead, and he scored a power-play goal late in the second period to put them up 3-0. In Game 4 against Detroit, he scored the tying goal and had an assist on Johnson's overtime winner.

Palat is a strong puck-handler but moves well without it and plays a 200-foot game.

"He probably doesn't get all the credit he deserves, but Ondrej is an incredible teammate and he just has a knack for making the right play at the right time," Johnson said. "He's definitely the guy that keeps everything together."

RANGERS WILL WIN IF … Outside of another strong series from Lundqvist, they must stay true to their defensive principles and forechecking structure while winning the space available in the middle of the ice.

Despite getting hemmed into their zone for long stretches against the Capitals, the Rangers never strayed from the way they want to play and were able to win enough space to take a tight, physical series.

Like the Rangers, the Lightning are a fast team and willing to play in a track-meet type of game. The Rangers can thrive in that type of game too, but they'd be better off avoiding it and taking advantage of their speed when afforded the opportunity.

The Rangers thrive on their speed, but it's smart speed with calculated risks from the defensemen. If they do it well, they'll be able to play the way they want to play, which would slow the Lightning.

LIGHTNING WILL WIN IF … Stamkos stays hot and Callahan can return early in the series. The Rangers play a fast game, which could play right into the Lightning's hands. Expect a lot of good skating and scoring chances with Stamkos continuing to make his mark on the wing.

Callahan had four goals and one assist against the Rangers in three regular-season games. Depending on his pain tolerance he could return as early as Game 1 on Saturday; Cooper on Thursday called him a game-time decision.

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