We’re here at last. The best two teams in the east made it to the conference finals. On one side, the well designed, balanced and surprising New York Rangers. Led by coach Gerard Gallant, Vezina candidate Igor Shesterkin and veteran Chris Kreider, the Rangers rallied from multiple two game deficits to win both full seven game series in thrilling fashion. On the other side, back-to-back and current champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Captain Steven Stamkos and last year’s Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy have played some of their best hockey this playoffs. Both teams will have their hands full, and many believe whoever wins this series is the favorite to win the championship. Time to break down who has the best chance to not just win the eastern conference, but possibly the Stanley Cup.
#4 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #3 New York Rangers
New York and Tampa Bay have excellent coaches, Vezina and Conn Smythe caliber goaltenders, important scorers and elite playmakers. The Rangers won all three of the regular season matchups against Tampa, two by two goals or more. Center Brayden Point may play the series starting game three thanks to the Lightning’s quick sweep of the Florida Panthers. Tampa’s had at least nine days of rest while New York will again play every other day in a seven game series (minus a two day break if they can force a game seven). The Rangers defense got better the more they played a series, and gradually took over previous rounds against Pittsburgh and Carolina.
Series deciding matchup: The Kid Line of Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere has to beat Tampa’s third line of Nick Paul, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare/Corey Perry and Brandon Hagel. Most of the third line contributors are young and haven’t played past four seasons in the NHL. All of them will be tasked with major minutes and contributing not just in scoring but in momentum swings, blocked shots and physical defensive play.
Verdict: New York seems to play better when they have a series deficit versus their opponents. However they’ll be playing against the most qualified opponent who’s proven to win critical games both on the road and at home. The Lightning’s hungry new additions of Perry, Paul, Bellemare and of course Andre Vasilevskiy’s elite play after a loss or in a game seven doesn’t give the Rangers many options to string consecutive wins together. Tampa doesn’t like to dither with teams when they lead two games in a series.
Prediction: Lightning win series 4-2
Eastern conference playoff predictions after two rounds: 5-1