By Daniel Friedman
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Off a Braden Holtby rebound collected and deposited into the net by Derek Stepan, the New York Rangers have moved onto the Eastern Conference finals.
It will be the second consecutive ECF appearance for the Rangers, and their third in the past four seasons. Seven players on the roster have been with the team in all three instances (Dan Girardi, Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Stepan). Mats Zuccarello skated in 24 regular season games for the Blueshirts in 2011-12, but none in the playoffs.
It hasn’t been the smoothest ride for the Rangers in these playoffs, though it rarely is for any team.
Once again, they found themselves behind 3-1 in a series and, once again, they found a way to rally back and win. That’s not luck; it’s resolve. It’s poise. It’s veteran savvy. It’s a testament to how well-equipped this team is to make a deep postseason run.
Now, they’ll face the Tampa Bay Lightning – a familiar foe in the sense that they boast a handful of former Rangers. Whether or not they see their old captain Ryan Callahan (who’s recovering from an appendectomy), they’ll still have to reacquaint themselves with defenseman Anton Stralman and gritty center Brian Boyle.
As for the Bolts, they’ll be up against a pair of veterans who were a major part of their 2004 Stanley Cup title in Dan Boyle and Martin St. Louis. Dominic Moore also played for Tampa a few years ago.
It should be a fun series. I think you’ll see more scoring this time around, just because of the stylistic differences between Washington and Tampa Bay. The Capitals were a much more physical team, a much more defensively sound team. The Lightning like to open things up and let their offense – which was the NHL’s best this season – make an impact.
On the flipside, the Rangers arguably have the best defense and goaltending in hockey, so you have an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
My sense is that Tampa will score more goals than you’d typically expect from other teams against Lundqvist, but not to the point where things will get out of hand, nor to an extent that’s insurmountable for the Blueshirts.
There are quite a few Ranger forwards – most notably, Rick Nash and St. Louis – who haven’t really been able to shift into a higher gear to this point. Now, they’ll face a defense that isn’t as smothering as Washington’s, and a goalie in Ben Bishop who’s been shaky at times during these playoffs.
What I’m saying is, if there was ever an opportune moment for them to break out, this would be it. Not that it’s going to be easy, but I think the situation is certainly ripe for that kind of thing to happen. Considering the amount of weapons their opponent has to play with, the Rangers’ best players need to be just that. They’ll need Nash and St. Louis to step up.
The Rangers are coming off an exhausting seven-game series, while the Lightning are a bit more rested, having dispatched the Montreal Canadiens in six. I was a bit surprised to see Tampa Bay struggle to close out the Habs the way it did, but in no way does that mean the Bolts shouldn’t be taken as seriously.
Make no mistake – the Lightning are incredibly talented. They’ll come at you in the offensive zone, with wave after wave of relentless scoring chances.
They’re going to present some interesting matchup challenges for Rangers’ head coach Alain Vigneault, in terms of which defensemen he assigns the task of facing Steven Stamkos’ line and who he sends over the boards against Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, one of the best lines in all of hockey.
Vigneault has the personnel to potentially keep Tampa’s offense somewhat in check, but his opponent’s scoring depth could spread his top blueliners too thin at times – especially on the road when the Lightning have the benefit of last change.
I don’t think we’ll see a similarly outstanding goalie dual like the one we saw in the last round. I like Bishop, but he’s been on and off the first two rounds, whereas Holtby was just superb throughout. You know Lundqvist will be at his best (or at least should be).
The Rangers may very well have passed the toughest test the Eastern Conference will throw at them by defeating the Capitals, but the Lightning will not be an easy out. If you let your guard down against the Bolts, they’ll bury you.
A team of destiny the Blueshirts may very well be, but nothing is being handed to them. Everything is earned, and that requires tons of hard work and determination.
The Rangers did that in the previous rounds. Now, they have to go out there do it all over again.
Simple enough, right?
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI