NHL Eastern Conference Final Preview: Can the Rangers Keep the Momentum Going?
The Stanley Cup playoffs continue on Saturday with an exciting semifinal matchup between the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Rangers -- Presidents' Trophy holders, and therefore, the best team in the league on paper -- still retain hopes of a repeat appearance in the Stanley Cup Final after engineering a remarkable comeback against the Washington Capitals after being down 3-1 in their series.
However, in their way are the Lightning, who are looking for their first Stanley Cup appearance since they lifted the trophy back in 2004. The Lightning have closed out tough series against formidable opponents in the likes of the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens, and as a result, have proven they have the guts and perseverance to grind out hard-fought wins both on home and away ice.
As things stand, our algorithm favors the Rangers to win the series with a 54.45% probability of reaching the Stanley Cup Final, which leaves the Lightning with a 45.55% probability of defeating their opponents. Taking a further look down the road, the algorithm prediction gives the Rangers a 30.59% probability of lifting the Stanley Cup Trophy, and the Lightning a 24.30% probability of doing so.
The Rangers will come out playing on home ice for the first two games of the series and will also have home ice advantage should the series go to seven games. All things considered, both teams boast a number of hard fought wins to reach the semifinals, and this series should be a tightly-contested affair. That being said, let's a take a look at some key factors that should shape the outcome of this series.
Keys to the Series
Injuries shouldn't seriously cripple either team in the series -- the Rangers have learned to adapt with key forward Mats Zuccarello out for the remainder of the playoffs, and his absence has caused lower stacked players such as Carl Hagelin and Kevin Hayes to step up and deliver clutch performances. Veteran Dan Boyle's injury status is still unknown after being crushed by Brooks Orpik in the final game of the series against the Washington Capitals. However, the Rangers' blue line has looked strong enough this postseason to adapt if his injury keeps him out of the next few games.
For the Lightning, the only significant injury concern is the questionable fitness of former Ranger Ryan Callahan after his emergency appendectomy two days ago, but the Lightning remain optimistic that he will feel healthy in time for Game 1 at Madison Square Garden.
The goalie matchup in this series will certainly play a big part in each team's chances of reaching the Final, as it usually does in the playoffs. With Henrik Lundqvist in goal, the Rangers are automatically given a massive confidence boost; he routinely thwarted Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals offense with critical saves throughout Round 2.
For the Lightning, Ben Bishop has also had a stellar postseason thus far.
The data below reveals the exceptional numbers that both goalies have put up over their last five games in the postseason. (Note: GA = goals against, SA= shots against, SV= total number of saves, SV%= save percentage per game)
Moving on to the bulk of the rosters, the Rangers showed how good of a skating team they are against the Caps, and also demonstrated great resilience in withstanding the Capitals physical style of play. The Rangers have a reliable pair guarding the blue line in the form of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. Their blue-liners will be key for them as they go against a much quicker Tampa Bay team than the one they faced in both Pittsburgh and Washington.
Chris Kreider is their X-factor because of his electrifying, straight-ahead speed. And his laser-like wristshot will make the Lightning defense very aware of the threat he poses.
Rick Nash needs to be more assertive, with only 1 goal and 3 assists in the last 10 postseason games. And although he had a good series against Washington, their power play was not as effective as they hoped against the Caps.
If the Rangers are going to deliver and reach the Stanley Cup Final, they'll have to support Lundquist by putting points on the board, and they'll certainly rely on X-factor threats such as Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard, and Derek Stepan to perform.
Tampa Bay should find strength in the fact that they can roll four very good lines. Their defense has been formidable with Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman leading the way. Hedman has been plus or even in 8 of the last 10 playoff games, and similarly, Stralman has been plus or even in 7 of 10.
Additionally, their power play is almost as dangerous as their penalty kill, with the likes of Brian Boyle stepping up and asserting himself in man-up scenarios. When the Lightning power play can establish itself in the offensive zone, they look like the Harlem Globetrotters; they don't waste much time and keep passes going, creating a lot of chaos, and thus, space in the slot for easy feeds from the face off dots.
Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are the keys in this series, even with their marquee player Steven Stamkos looking more like his regular season self. Johnson and Palat, between the two of them, have averaged 4.5 goals, 4.5 assists, and 18 shots on goal over the last 10 games, and they need to maintain similar numbers, especially on their power play, which needs to improve from its current 18% to capitalize on offensive opportunities.
If Stamkos can find form and raise his teammates' confidence, the Lightning offense will surely cause the Rangers' blue-line plenty of problems, minimize the pressure on Ben Bishop, and giving themselves a good shot at advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.