Rangers vs. Lightning: 2022 Eastern Conference Final Preview

Rangers vs. Lightning: 2022 Eastern Conference Final Preview
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A lot has changed between the 2022 Eastern Conference Final, and the last time the Rangers and Lightning met: the 2015 Eastern Conference Final.

Sure, some things were the same, or similar. The names are different, but from Henrik Lundqvist to Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers are still luxuriating in all-world goaltending from netminders they found in the fourth round or later. Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman remain crucial to the Lightning’s success. Chris Kreider‘s still there to score goals and test nerves.

But then there are the differences. Andrei Vasilevskiy is no longer backing up Ben Bishop, and plenty of people would argue that he’d be a backup to no one. (Of course, others might view him as Russia’s backup to … yes, Igor Shesterkin.)

[2022 Western Conference Final playoff series preview: Avalanche vs. Oilers]

The Rangers went through a rebuild between these conference final appearances. Some called for the Lightning to tear things down after a shocking sweep to the Blue Jackets, yet they wisely resisted those pleas. Now, of course, they’re deep into a three-peat bid.

When fans aren’t watching Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and other stars collide out West, they can be treated to Igor Shesterkin and Andrei Vasilevskiy making their cases for best goalie in the world.

As you’ll see from this Rangers – Lightning series, there’s quite a lot to be excited about.

2022 NHL playoff schedule: Eastern Conference Final

NEW YORK RANGERS v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Game 1 – June 1: Lightning at Rangers, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS)
Game 2 – June 3: Lightning at Rangers, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS)
Game 3 – June 5: Rangers at Lightning, 3 p.m. ET (ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS)
Game 4 – June 7: Rangers at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN, SN, CBC, TVAS)
*Game 5 – June 9: Lightning at Rangers, 8 p.m. ET (TBD)
*Game 6 – June 11: Rangers at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (TBD)
*Game 7 -June 14: Lightning at Rangers, 8 p.m. ET (TBD)

* If necessary

Offense

Imagine you’re in one of those playground/phys ed class situations where people keep picking the top players. In that scenario, the Rangers would probably fare reasonably well against the Lightning.

That’s especially true when we’re assuming, reasonably, that Brayden Point either will be unavailable, will only play a portion of the series, or will play more than expected (but be physically limited).

In a “fantasy draft” situation, Nikita Kucherov would likely go first. Once you get beyond Kucherov, though, you’d think people would move to Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, and other top Rangers forwards quite quickly.

Yet, broadly speaking, the Rangers tend to earn their best scoring chances on an often-beastly power play.

Evolving Hockey’s Team RAPM charts can give you a snapshot of how the Rangers and Lightning operate, in a single image.

The Rangers absolutely leaned on their power play against the Hurricanes, especially as the series went along.

Meanwhile, the chameleon-like Lightning are versatile enough to adapt to just about any opponent.

Consider the improvements the Rangers made in adding Andrew Copp and Frank Vatrano during the trade deadline and mix in the likely absence of Brayden Point, and you may agree that this matchup should be close.

I can’t help but trust the Lightning’s structure to manufacture good-enough offense. We’ll see.

Advantage: Lightning

Defense

As great as Andrei Vasilevskiy was against the Panthers, the Lightning’s team defense deserves serious accolades for insulating him.

Of course, it starts with Victor Hedman, who rebounded to the degree that he justified his annual Norris Trophy hype this season. Interestingly, the Rangers boast one of the few defensemen who could conceivably outplay Hedman in a series, however, in Adam Fox. They’re two star defensemen who are different in a host of ways (including handedness), yet both produce elite results.

So, the difference likely boils down to structure and depth.

The Lightning rank among the deepest defensive groups in the NHL. Don’t blame other teams for envying the Lightning, who can lean on Hedman while allowing Erik Cernak, Ryan McDonagh, and Mikhail Sergachev to insulate depth players.

[Lightning on their long layoff]

Over time, the Rangers may very well have their own deep pool of defensemen. That ultimately boils down to how K'Andre Miller, Braden Schneider, and a few others develop. It also hinges on Ryan Lindgren surviving these playoffs in one piece, and Jacob Trouba avoiding supplemental discipline.

During many stretches this season, the Rangers leaned on their goalie as much as any (successful) team has in recent memory. While they’ve shown flashes of being more competent, it must be noted how often they’ve been caved-in at even-strength.

Credit the Rangers for finding ways to win, but those numbers scream “playing with fire,” and the Lightning are just the type of opponent that can burn you for your mistakes.

Advantage: Lightning

Goaltending

Here’s an unwelcome gut feeling, not unlike a big pot belly on the beach. My gut feeling is that Igor Shesterkin is the best goalie in the world right now.

Yet, I’d wager that if people base their viewpoints on results in this series, Andrei Vasilevskiy may win some extra votes. A goalie can clean up a lot of mistakes. However, even Shesterkin — knocking on that Lundqvist/Dominik Hasek door lately — has his limits.

In the grand scheme of things, Shesterkin vs. Vasilevskiy is a jump ball or a coin flip. If history repeats, a difference in supporting casts and structure around them will make Vasilevskiy look superior.

All of that said, I would not feel comfortable betting against Igor Shesterkin.

Advantage: Push

Special teams

With Brayden Point possibly out for some/all of the 2022 Eastern Conference Final, the Rangers’ power play looks deadlier than that of the Lightning. Uh, probably.

Adam Fox, Mika Zibanejad, and Artemi Panarin can all create dangerous challenges. Chris Kreider may be the scariest net-front power-play presence in the league this season.

Yet, even without Point, the Lightning squeezed advantages out of their power play. Nikita Kucherov’s dual shooting/passing threat makes him an absolute nightmare to deal with. He has a knack for finding Steven Stamkos with “Alex Ovechkin‘s office”-style one-timer chances. Victor Hedman is also a fearsome power play weapon.

One other thing’s worth considering: the Rangers power play finished at a high rate, but also exploited teams with serious goalie injuries. Vasilevskiy could make that unit look relatively tame.

There are also metrics that nudge things the Lightning’s way, but I’m reluctantly giving this one to the Rangers.

Advantage: Rangers

Rangers vs. Lightning playoff series prediction: Tampa Bay wins in Game 7

At times this season, a Lightning – Rangers series seemed like it would be a no-brainer for Tampa Bay. In those scenarios, you’d expect a swift series. For all we know, the repeat champions may indeed take New York “to school.”

Yet, the Rangers keep finding ways to win, and they beat a Hurricanes opponent who likely would have given the Lightning headaches. Sometimes things just a roll a team’s way, and it feels like the Rangers have that horseshoe.

The Lightning are the favorites, but the Rangers’ run of good fortune gives serious pause.

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    Sharks goalie James Reimer declines to wear Pride jersey

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    San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer didn’t take part in pregame warmups, saying the team’s decision to wear Pride-themed jerseys in support of the LGBTQ community runs counter to his religious beliefs.

    Reimer said in a statement Saturday that he made the decision based on his Christian beliefs, adding that he “always strived to treat everyone with respect” and that members of the LGBTQ community should be welcome in hockey.

    “In this specific instance, I am choosing not to endorse something that is counter to my personal convictions, which are based on the Bible, the highest authority in life,” Reimer said.

    Reimer is the second NHL player this season to refuse to take part in warmups with Pride-themed jerseys, with Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov declining to in January. Reimer was not slated to start in Saturday night’s home game against the New York Islanders, which is Pride night.

    Additionally, the New York Rangers opted not to wear Pride jerseys or use Pride stick tape as part of their night in January despite previously advertising that plan.

    The Sharks said in a statement that they are proud to host Pride Night, saying the event reinforces the team’s commitment to inclusiveness.

    “As we promote these standards, we also acknowledge and accept the rights of individuals to express themselves, including how or whether they choose to express their beliefs, regardless of the cause or topic,” the team said in a statement. “As an organization, we will not waver in our support of the LGBTQIA+ community and continue to encourage others to engage in active allyship.”

    The You Can Play Project, which works to promote inclusiveness in sports, said the organization was disappointed in Reimer’s actions.

    “Religion and respect are not in conflict with each other, and we are certainly disappointed when religion is used as a reason to not support our community,” the organization said. “Wearing pride jerseys, like any celebration jersey worn, is not about the personal feelings of an athlete; rather the communication from the team that a community is welcome in the arena and the sport.”

    Panarin, Shesterkin lead Rangers to 6-0 rout of Penguins

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    NEW YORK — Mika Zibanejad had a goal and two assists, Artemi Panarin scored twice and Igor Shesterkin made 33 saves as the New York Rangers routed Pittsburgh 6-0 on Saturday night for their second win over the Penguins in three days.

    Vladimir Tarasenko, Chris Kreider and Jacob Trouba also scored for the surging Rangers, who have won nine of their last 11 home games and are 12-4-0 in their past 16 at Madison Square Garden.

    Shesterkin won his fifth straight and posted his second shutout this season. He nimbly denied Pittsburgh forward Mikael Granland with a sprawling save five minutes into the third period to preserve the shutout, the 10th of his career. His other one this season was a 1-0 home win over Philadelphia on Nov. 1.

    “When you put in hard and honest work, miracles happen,” Shesterkin said through a translator. ”We played wonderfully today – scored many, many goals. Honestly, I hope the fans loved it. We’re playing for them.”

    The Penguins lost their third straight and trail the Rangers by 12 points for third place in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh, still in wild-card position, is trying to reach the playoffs for the 17th straight time.

    “Tonight was a humbling experience for all of us,” coach Mike Sullivan said. ”At this time of year, you have to have a short memory. We still have control of our destiny.”

    Patrick Kane and defenseman K’Andre Miller also had two assists apiece as New York improved to 7-1-1 in its last nine home games against Pittsburgh. The Rangers are five points behind the second-place New Jersey Devils, who lost at Florida on Saturday.

    “This was a big game for our goalie and our team,” Panarin said. “If you work at playing the right way, you have opportunities for goals.”

    Since Dec. 5, when they turned around their season with a 6-4 comeback win at home over St. Louis, the Rangers are 29-9-5.

    As he did on Thursday when the Rangers beat the Penguins 4-2, Zibanejad opened the scoring. He got his team-leading 36th goal at 5:10 of the first, beating Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry. Trouba and Miller assisted.

    Panarin made it 2-0 at 19:49 on the power play, whipping the puck past Jarry from the left circle off a pass from Adam Fox.

    Tarasenko increased the lead at 3:54 of the second with his fifth goal since joining the Rangers in a trade with St. Louis on Feb. 9. Tarasenko has points in 10 of his first 18 games with the Rangers.

    Kreider made it 4-0 at 6:43 with his 31st goal and third in two games against the Penguins. Kane and Vincent Trocheck assisted on Kreider’s 260th career goal, which moved the Rangers forward within two of Vic Hadfield for fifth place on the franchise list.

    New York won Thursday when Kreider scored the go-ahead goal in the third and added an empty-netter.

    After Casey DeSmith replaced Jarry in net following Kreider’s goal, Trouba beat the replacement with a sharp-angle shot at 8:39 for his eighth to increase the margin to 5-0. Trouba has points in six of his last eight games.

    Panarin scored again at 16:38 of the second – his 22nd goal of the season – to make it 6-0, with assists to Kane and Filip Chytil.

    “We’re building chemistry, building every day and every game,” Kane said.

    Panarin has points in eight of his last 10 games and leads the Rangers with 77 points overall, while Kane has seven points in his last six games.

    “It’s nice to see that many great players on your team,” added Panarin, whose first two NHL seasons were played alongside Kane with the Chicago Blackhawks. “We’re happy tonight.”

    Zibanejad assisted on goals by Tarasenko and Trouba and has 25 points – including 14 goals – over his last 20 games.

    “It was just one of those nights when the puck goes in for us,” Zibanejad said. “And obviously Igor gives us a boost making all those saves.”

    NOTES: The Penguins were missing defenseman Jeff Petry after he was hit with an unpenalized elbow from Rangers forward Tyler Motte on Thursday. … Pittsburgh also scratched defenseman Jan Rutta and forward Dalton Heinen and played defenseman Mark Friedman for the first time since Feb. 11. … The Rangers were without injured defenseman Ryan Lindgren for the 10th straight game.

    UP NEXT

    Penguins: Host the Ottawa Senators on Monday.

    Rangers: Host the Nashville Predators on Sunday night.

    Coyotes sign Shane Doan’s son to entry-level contract

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    TEMPE, Ariz. — Josh Doan is following his father’s footsteps into professional hockey.

    The Arizona Coyotes signed the 21-year-old forward to a three-year entry-level contract, beginning with the 2023-24 NHL season. He will report to the Tucson Roadrunners of the AHL and play his first game against the Calgary Wranglers.

    Doan’s father, Shane, played 21 seasons with the franchise, many of those as captain, and followed it from Winnipeg to the desert in 1996. Shane Doan now serves as Arizona’s chief hockey development officer.

    The Coyotes drafted Josh Doan in the second round of the 2021, but he opted to play for the hometown Arizona State Sun Devils.

    Josh Doan set school records for goals (12) and assists (25) as a freshman last season. He had 16 goals and 22 assists in 39 games with Arizona State this season.

    The 6-foot-1, 183-pounder also played two seasons for the Chicago Steel of the USHL.

    Blackhawks forward Cole Guttman has shoulder surgery

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    CHICAGO — Chicago Blackhawks forward Cole Guttman had surgery on his right shoulder.

    The team said the operation was performed in Los Angeles. Team physician Michael Terry said the 23-year-old Guttman is expected “to be out of hockey activities for approximately four months.”

    Guttman had been a pleasant surprise for rebuilding Chicago. He made his NHL debut last month and finished the season with four goals and two assists in 14 games.

    Guttman was selected by Tampa Bay in the 2017 draft. He agreed to a two-year contract with Chicago in August 2022 that had a $950,000 salary cap hit.