Rangers Brace For Serious Cup Contender in Tampa

The Rangers are in Tampa Bay this evening to take on the Lightning for the second time this season. The teams will meet once again on March 30 at Madison Square Garden.

The Blueshirts beat the Lightning 2-1 on J.T. Miller‘s overtime winner when the teams last faced one another on November 2. That game was about as complete a game as the team had played up to that point and helped propel the Rangers on an 11-3-0 run. Unfortunately, that was about as good as it would get on the season, and there has been a lot of water pass under the bridge since that overtime win against the Lightning.

[Watch Rangers-Lightning on MSG & MSG GO. Download Free]

The Rangers are coming off a 3-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. Patrik Laine had the hat trick and there is no more lethal shooter in the league than the soon-to-be, 20-year-old Finnish winger. When Washington’s Alex Ovechkin tees it up, you sure know what’s coming, whereas Laine’s deception, particularly when he releases the puck, is the key to his wonderful goal-scoring talent. He is that go-to goal scorer that any contending team would love to have. Don’t look now, but the Jets are a legitimate contending team.

Mika Zibanejad returns to the lineup tonight after missing the Jets game due to the flu. In his last three games played, Zibanejad has scored two goals and added an assist. He is one of just six forwards presently on the roster that is under contract for next season. With most of the mainstays having been moved along, Mika has a real opportunity to take a step up the ladder of importance.

Conditioning — or lack thereof — was an issue from the beginning of the season, something that has followed Mika throughout his young career. Whether that had anything to do with the concussion that cost him nine games this season is subject to debate. Moving forward, it is imperative that the very talented Zibanejad gives himself the best chance to be the best player he can be, by paying a little more attention to his offseason conditioning program.

[Watch Rangers-Lightning on MSG & MSG GO. Download Free]

Tampa Bay sits atop the league standings with 96 points, one ahead of Nashville, although the Predators have played one less game. The Lightning missed postseason play a year ago, falling just two points short of a wild card position. Injuries were the culprit, but a with a healthier lineup this season, Tampa is expected to be a very serious contender for the Stanley Cup.

Nikita Kucherov leads the league in scoring with 86 points while Steven Stamkos sits tied for fifth with 78 points, and Victor Hedman anchors a deep blueline. And with the trade deadline acquisitions of both Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, a deep team got a lot deeper. Come postseason, I would be a little concerned about the lack of skilled size down the middle particularly in a matchup with Pittsburgh. And can goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has been brilliant this season with a league-leading 59 games played, carry the load with just eight playoff games under his belt? It will be interesting to see as this franchise has done an awful lot of the right things to give themselves a really good chance.

KEYS

  1. Move Feet and Puck

I would expect this game to be played with a high degree of pace. The Rangers are certainly equipped to play such a game, as long as they are moving their feet and the puck. Gliding or standing still will certainly not work. Nor will poor puck movement.

  1. Tampa D

Despite their depth of talent and size, the Lightning defense can be exposed if you force them to run around in their own end of the ice. They do play a pursuing style, but can get caught chasing their mistakes. Make them work to defend.

  1. Namestnikov

Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes will match up against the Lightning’s top centers in Stamkos and Brayden Point. If they can hold serve perhaps Vladislav Namestnikov, in his first return to Tampa Bay since being dealt to New York, will make the difference.

[Watch Rangers-Lightning on MSG & MSG GO. Download Free]

The Garden of Dreams Foundation helps kids facing obstacles in the Tri-State area, including Rangers fan Taylor Ryan who is battling a rare blood disorder called Langerhans cell histiocytosis.