Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will offer his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
With the way each of their seasons has gone thus far, it's hard to believe the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, the teams that met in the Eastern Conference Final last season, could have a difficult time qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Stanley Cup contenders when the season began, they have had their struggles, but each team is much better than they have shown.
The Rangers started off red hot, but are 3-7-2 in December and have lost their past eight games on the road (0-6-2), having allowed more than four goals per game in those losses. They haven't looked anything like themselves or the way we know they can play.
The Lightning have been hampered by injuries all season but haven't used that an excuse for why they have yet to get it going and are in sixth place in the Atlantic Division.
The Rangers (20-13-4) visit the Lightning (18-15-4) at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: The good news is, they got off to that good start. The Rangers began the season 14-2-2 and I said at the time those points could end up being huge. That's made this tough stretch not as bad as it could have been had they started off the season poorly. They have a 14-5-1 record at Madison Square Garden, although this game will be on the road.
They got defensemen Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein back Monday in a 5-3 loss to the Nashville Predators, and center Derek Stepan recently returned to the lineup, so the health has been getting better.
Minuses: This has been a bad stretch of inconsistency based on how good their team has been. There hasn't been much offense, the defense hasn't played well at all, and even Henrik Lundqvist has looked human. And this game is on the road, where the Rangers have lost their past eight and are 6-8-3 this season.
The Rangers also are not playing as fast as they did last season, and they have most of the same players and coaching staff, so that has been frustrating. That's been one of the staples of their game, in addition to goaltending and defense, which haven't been good lately.
Even though the Rangers played well, they relied too much on Lundqvist during that great start and for most of the first two months of the season. Overall, they weren't playing as complete a game as they could with that group, even with the injuries.
Pluses: The good news for the Lightning is Steven Stamkos (five goals in five games) is starting to score again and looks like himself. He is scoring goals in different ways. The defensive play he and Anton Stralman combined to make in overtime of a 4-3 shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Monday was a nice sign of compete and commitment. Something that doesn't get talked about much with Stamkos is how well he can play defensively.
Goalie Ben Bishop has quietly had a great season (15-11-3, 2.03 goals against average, .926 save percentage), and played his 200th NHL game on Monday, which is a great accomplishment. Based on the year he is having, he could be in the conversation for Vezina Trophy.
The Lightning are starting to get healthier and are scoring goals again. Even though they have started to defend, to me their key has been being able to generate offense. When you look at Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Marchessault and their point streaks, having those guys scoring in addition to Stamkos, when they are making plays and scoring goals, those are the keys to their team.
Minuses: Injuries have been a big issue for the Lightning this season. Some players have come back recently, but Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat, big parts of their offense, remain out. They have started to score again, but overall this season, in part due to injuries, they just weren't lighting the lamp the way they had been.
The last point is that Tampa Bay isn't going to go sneak up on anybody like they did last season. They won't fly under the radar because everyone knows they are a good team. They were two victories away from winning the Stanley Cup last season.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Speed and pace. I think it will favor the Lightning.
2. A lot of players have worn jerseys for each team. Dan Boyle, Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, Stralman to name a few, so the teams are very familiar with each other.
3. Do the Rangers rediscover their game, or do the Lightning continue to play their up-tempo, offensive game?