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
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.
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.
- Via Natural Stat Trick, the Hurricanes generated 101 high-danger chances, while the Rangers managed 69.
- Despite the Penguins being banged-up, they dominated the Rangers at even-strength, managed a 122-59 advantage in high-danger chances.
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.
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.
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.
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.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.