New York Rangers
During the regular season, the Rangers had a lot of positives to talk about on the offensive side – in fact, they scored the most 5v5 goals of any team in the NHL – but during the playoffs their biggest strength has been their future Hall of Fame goalie Henrik Lundqvist. While most goalies bounce up and down in the postseason, Lundqvist keeps on proving he is the best that the NHL has to offer. In their first two series, the King has an other-wordly .944 save percentage. You might say: “He won’t keep that up!” Well, maybe not. But his previous four seasons in the playoffs he has had .931, .934 and .927 save percentages.
While New York has not been a scoring super power by any means, struggling to solve both Marc-Andre Fleury and Braden Holtby, they have a deep roster that offers scoring prowess on three lines. While Kevin Hayes only has three points in 12 games, he has added a new element to the Rangers’ lineup compared to last season with size, puck protection ability and the capability of getting to the front of the net. Hayes’ ability to play center or wing gives coach Alain Vigneault options with matchups as the series goes along.
The addition of Keith Yandle to the back end was a much needed one for the Rangers. In 12 playoff games, he only has four points, but has a +6.5% Relative Corsi, posting a 54.3% Corsi when on ice.
Health may be an issue. Not that Dan Boyle has been the Dan Boyle of five years ago, but he plays important minutes for the Blue Shirts and can still carry and pass the puck like the old days, even if he doesn’t have much explosiveness left. The Rangers’ offense also struggled with the Norwegian Nightmare (yes, I just made that up) Mats Zuccarello out of the lineup. If Zuccarello isn’t able to play against Tampa Bay, that leaves a darned big hole on the wing. Not only is he a top notch playmaker with the puck, but Zucc brings an element of scrappiness that is fit for the playoffs.
The Rangers also do not have a Crosby/Kopitar/Datsyuk/Bergeron level No. 1 two-way center. The growth of Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard has been impressive as they have both become much better all-around centers, but they are not among the elite of the elite – which most Cup teams tend to have.
It is also time we acknowledge Rick Nash’s struggles with scoring in the playoffs. The mainstream pounds on these things so much that statistically-minded folks tend to tune it out, but the longer we go, the more it seems we should be looking for explanations other than “small sample size.” Nash has seven goals in 54 career playoff games and is shooting at a 3.8% clip. Watch closely and you will rarely see Nash get a shot attempt from anywhere close to the net. For one of the league’s elite goal scorers, it’s puzzling to see him taking outside shots after he clears the blue line. That has to change for the Rangers to win.
Tampa Bay Lightning
We mentioned that the Rangers had the most 5v5 goals this season. Guess who was right behind? The Lightning, in second place with just three fewer. Tampa Bay also offers tremendous depth at the forward position, with three lines that could play as the first or second line in most cities.
Of course, they boast a truly elite player in Steven Stamkos. If you were drafting current players to take in one series, he might go No. 2 overall only behind Sidney Crosby. Stamkos is the most dangerous goal scorer in the league not named Alex Ovechkin and has turned into an all around player. While he has not lit up the scoreboard in the playoffs (yet), Stamkos has been an impact player with a +4.1% Relative Corsi and has added playoff-level physical play to his game.
The key to the Lightning’s attack is their pair of insanely good puck moving defensemen Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman. Acquired in the offseason (in a brilliant move by Stevie Y), Stralman is one of the most intelligent players in the NHL and is nothing short of magic at driving puck possession. His Relative Corsi is a +14.3% (!!!!) in the playoffs so far. That’s unheard of, even in small samples. Stralman’s first passes and simple plays pay off in spades for their skilled forwards, who are outstanding at bobbing and weaving through the neutral zone. And Hedman has become one of the best D-men in the NHL. His size combined with skating ability and puck skills are among the elite. Watch for him to single-handedly create scoring chances by dangling through defenders with the puck and stepping up in the play without it.
The 6-foot-7 netminder has the ugliest .931 save percentage you have ever seen. Even when he has been at his absolute best, the viewer still feels like he/she is on the subway with nothing to hang onto.
Bishop was an average goalie during the regular season with a .916 save percentage. That is worrisome as the sample grows.
The Lightning make their bones on neutral zone play, using high-skill cross-ice passes to create room for easy zone entries. We saw the Detroit Red Wings and soon-to-be billionaire Mike Babcock slow down their neutral zone play by simply breaking the rules. The Red Wings were interference mongers, grabbing onto anything that moved and daring the referees to call penalties. For the most part, it worked. We’ll see if AV studies Babcock’s strategy.
Jonathan Drouin Watch will also be a thing. Jon Cooper elected to sit Drouin in Game 6 against Montreal. It doesn’t take a fighter pilot to figure out that it was a risk aversion move, playing a more experienced player that is less likely to make a mistake.
Depth on defense is a weakness you could write for every NHL team because of the Salary Cap Era and expansion, but Braydon Cobourn and Jason Garrison have Corsi Percentages in the 30s at the moment. That’s not good.
It’s the matchup of the two best teams in the East all year. Not standings wise, but, like, in real life. Outside of the goaltender, everything leans in Tampa Bay’s favor. They had the best shots on goal differential in the NHL this year, their forward group and top four defenders are a shade better and coaching is probably even – both are very, very good.
Should be a close one. Tampa Bay in 6