Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Issues, Matchups, X-Factors And A Prediction

By Sean Hartnett
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Let’s put the homecoming storylines aside for a moment and focus on the X’s and O’s.

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The Rangers were able to advance to the Eastern Conference finals by grinding out four victories against the defensive-minded Washington Capitals, essentially beating Barry Trotz at his own game. To advance to a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance, the Blueshirts will have to slow down the offensively loaded Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning play a track-meet style and boast excellent scoring depth. Fifteen different Tampa Bay players have scored this postseason. Captain Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson are a more dangerous one-two punch than Ovechkin-Backstrom or Crosby-Malkin. Johnson leads the NHL with eight playoff goals, and Stamkos torched the Rangers for seven points (two goals, five assists) in three regular-season games this season.

Henrik Lundqvist makes a save against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Madison Square Garden on November 17, 2014. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Henrik Lundqvist makes a save against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Madison Square Garden on November 17, 2014. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

You’re going to hear a lot about Tampa Bay’s “Triplets” as the series progresses. The second line of Ondrej Palat, Johnson and Nikita Kucherov have scored 17 of Tampa’s 34 goals through 13 playoff games. The Triplets have a sixth sense when they’re together on the ice, displaying near-telepathic chemistry.

The Rangers’ stingy blue liners must remain rock solid. The Bolts dominated the Rangers during the regular season, going 3-0-0. But that was a long time ago. Their last meeting was on December 1.

CAN RANGERS SHUT DOWN TAMPA’S RED-HOT POWER PLAY?

Tampa Bay’s power play went a scorching 35 percent last round against the Montreal Canadiens, but the Rangers are a team that excels in shorthanded situations. The Rangers held the Capitals’ power play to 6.7 percent, killing off 14 of 15 chances during the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The compared to the Rangers’ over-passing power play, the Lightning make it look easy with their simplified scheme and bang-bang goals. Kucherov is tied for the NHL lead with five power-play points and is tied for second with three power-play goals.

Look out for Anton Stralman. The ex-Ranger has taken advantage of increased power play minutes in Tampa. He has recorded power play points in two of his past three games.

RANGERS NEED A HEALTHY ZUCC

If Mats Zuccarello is able to return during the Eastern Conference finals, it could tilt the series advantage in the Rangers’ favor. Their scoring depth issues have become exposed during his absence.

Without Zuccarello, Vigneault has been forced to frequently mix and match line combinations in hope of sparking his offense. The Rangers are better suited moving the struggling Martin St. Louis out of the top-six. St. Louis has yet to score a goal this playoffs. He has collected four assists through 12 games.

During Thursday’s appearance on WFAN with host Mike Francesa, head coach Alain Vigneault said that Zuccarello has begun working out. Vigneault previously said that Zuccarello was “coming along” following Wednesday’s Game 7 victory over Washington.

Zuccarello’s tenacious, energetic style of play injects belief into the Rangers. The 5-foot-7 winger wins plenty of puck battles, has the ability to create and plays an in-your-face game.

The Rangers need Zuccarello more than ever. Their goals per game have fallen from second-highest in the league at 3.02 during the regular season to 2.00 during the playoffs.

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CALLAHAN DAY-TO-DAY AFTER EMERGENCY SURGERY

Lightning forward Ryan Callahan practiced on Thursday, just three days after undergoing emergency appendectomy surgery. After participating in light team drills, Callahan told reporters that he’s day-to-day.

The Lightning flew into Newark on Thursday and will practice at Madison Square Garden at 1:30 p.m. Friday. Expect the tough-minded Callahan to suit up for Saturday’s Game 1.

BISHOP UNDEFEATED AGAINST NYR, BUT CAN HE BEST THE KING IN THE PLAYOFFS?

Towering 6-foot-7 goaltender Ben Bishop has dominated the Blueshirts throughout his career, going 8-0-0 with a 1.49 goals-against average and .946 save percentage.

Bishop has been tough to beat this postseason. Through 13 playoff games, he has posted a 1.81 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage. Having out-dueled Hart Trophy finalist Carey Price, his next challenge will be even harder against Henrik Lundqvist.

The Rangers certainly have the edge in net given Lundqvist’s mastery and experience. In the 2015 playoffs, Lundqvist has finished 11 of 12 games with a save percentage above .930. His overall numbers are, well, otherworldly. King Henrik has posted a 1.60 GAA and a SV% of .944.

RANGERS X-FACTOR: KEITH YANDLE

The win-now Rangers acquired offensive-minded defenseman Keith Yandle prior to the trade deadline to add a new dimension to their run-of-the-mill power play. Yandle is an explosive skater, an outstanding puck-handler and packs a hard one-timer.

In his first playoff campaign with the Rangers, Yandle has yet to score a goal. He has contributed four assists through 12 postseason games. The Rangers need Yandle to bust out and provide the creativity this team sorely needs – especially if Zuccarello remains out of the lineup.

LIGHTNING X-FACTOR: RYAN CALLAHAN

Callahan recorded four goals and one assist against the Rangers in three regular-season games. The artist formerly know as Captain Cally has yet to light the lamp this playoffs. He is without a goal and has collected three assists in 12 postseason games.

The former Rangers captain is due for a breakout and has a knack for scoring greasy goals. Expect Callahan to be a pest around Lundqvist’s crease.

PREDICTION: LIGHTNING IN SIX

It’s difficult imagining the Rangers matching firepower with the Bolts. Tampa is deeper, and Bishop will play well enough to prevent the Blueshirts from making a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance.

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Follow Sean on Twitter – @HartnettHockey