Lightning is harmless – as long as it doesn’t strike you.
When it comes to Thunder and Bolts – as in the Tampa Bay variety — the Rangers are safe. Quite safe.
Facing the Lightning at The Garden Saturday afternoon, the Blueshirts are laughing; or, at least, they should be.
With the Eastern Conference Final ready for its opening face-off, the only thing the New Yorkers have to fear is, well, zilch, nada, zero.
Primed for their second consecutive run to the Stanley Cup Final, Alain Vigneault‘s Metropolitan Division victors will vanquish their counterparts in five games. I stand by that call.
The Rangers are better in virtually every department but one. For more precise proof, read on; my friends, read on:
The Lightning’s Ben Bishop is good; Henrik Lundqvist is better. That’s no knock on the BB-stopper, who is a Vezina finalist and holds franchise records for wins, goals against average and save percentage. Benny also is the best goaltender ever developed in St. Louis, Mo.
Tampa’s trouble is that The King has never been on such a stratospheric throne. He wins by a goal in regulation and sudden death. You name it; Henrik wins when it counts. And, really – arithmetic is fine – it’s the bottom line W that matters most.
Despite the indefinite loss of Mats Zuccarello, the Rangers’ attacking unit is growing stronger by the series. Derek Stepan has come of age – ask Braden Holtby – and everyone down to the fourth-liners are united in the most professional manner. Granted, Rick Nash blew a shorthanded breakaway in Game 7, but The Large One is getting chances and will deliver. Expect a motivated Martin St. Louis to improve.
A quintet of Bolts forwards will give New York headaches. Clearly, it starts with Steven Stamkos and ends with Vladislav Namestnikov. In between there’s Calder Trophy finalists Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, as well as bull in the china shop Nikita Kucherov. Throw in center Valtteri Filppula and you have some kind of offense.
Oh, yeah, our old pal Brian Boyle is back. As is Ryan Callahan, maybe. The former Rangers captain is recuperating from an appendectomy performed Monday. Fact is, you never can tell when the gutsy Cally will return; sooner rather than medically later.
Advantage: Rangers, but not by a lot
Emerging virtually intact from the first pair of rounds, Vigneault’s blue liners remain the most competent hard to surmount rocks this side of Everest. And versatile, to boot. Even Dan Girardi, the most defense-oriented defender manages effective thrusts. (Didn’t he help create Stepan’s series-winner on Wednesday night?)
There’s no need for me to recount the virtues of Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal nor Kevin Klein. And if Dan Boyle is too battered to play, there’s always reliable Matt Hunwick ready to fill the bill; or bill the Bolts, as the case may be.
The Lightning’s defense is headed by Victor Hedman, who has vaulted into the upper echelon of blue liners. Tampa’s back line was shored up this season with the acquisition of ex-Ranger Anton Stralman, who stepped up into a top-four role.
Hard-shooting Jason Garrison, who was obtained from Vancouver, also fits into the top-four while Alaska-born Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn round out the familiar names. The Bolts weak underbelly on D consists of less-experienced Nikita Nesterov, a graduate of the club’s AHL farm in Syracuse, and the mammoth (6-8, 225 pounds) Andrej Sustr.
The Rangers’ power play has been average, at best, but – Hey! – the tying PP goal on Wednesday night by Kevin Hayes revived the Blueshirts, setting the stage for the win. It should get even better against the Bolts. New York’s penalty-killers rank fourth throughout the playoffs. Between Dom Moore and Girardi, the Rangers have two of the best PK artists.
Tampa’s power play cannot be taken lightly mostly because of the Stamkos presence. Stralman works the point with Kucherov, Palat and Johnson rounding out the top unit. The PK ain’t bad either with Bishop as the main man, fronted by Boyle, Hedman, Cedric Paquette and Stralman.
Advantage: Lightning, but not by much
It’s AV’s experience vs. Jon Cooper’s determination and creativity.
The potential returns of balance-wheels Zuccarello and Callahan could tilt the advantage to whichever team gets their worthies back on the ice. In the meantime, both clubs have done very well without their respective pepper-pots.
Motivation will be an interesting one considering the forced move of St. Louis to New York, as well as Callahan’s bolt from the Blueshirts. Then there’s the fact that the Rangers are the defending Eastern Conference champs and Presidents’ Trophy winners. As such, Tampa Bay’s skaters are looking at a bullseye on the Blueshirts’ backs.
Lightning: Palat can make a huge impact. Not only is he one of the top penalty killers for the Bolts, but he can put the puck in the net as well.
Rangers: Jesper Fast is getting stronger throughout the playoffs. His ability to use his speed and athleticism can give the Lightning defense a tough time.
I haven’t changed my mind from the above. RANGERS IN FIVE!