Lightning vs. Rangers: Preview and Prediction for 2015 Eastern Conference Final

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Tampa Bay Lightning are the best team in the Atlantic Division. The New York Rangers survived the bloody battle of the Metropolitan Division.

    Now they go head-to-head for the Eastern Conference title in the hopes of advancing one last time. 

    It won't be easy. The Lightning played a tough six-game series against the Montreal Canadiens after their opening-round matchup went the distance against the Detroit Red Wings. The Rangers pose an even more challenging matchup with a defensive mindset that will attempt to smother the high-powered Bolts.

    The Rangers are coming off yet another one-goal victory in these playoffs, taking out the Washington Capitals in seven games with a 2-1 overtime win in Wednesday's Game 7 after eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the first round.

    They won the Presidents' Trophy with the best regular-season record after being bounced from the Stanley Cup Final last spring. 

    Given their success from a year ago, the Rangers are hoping their experience and unflappable netminder Henrik Lundqvist can give them an edge.

    Here we take a deeper look at what turned out to be the two best teams in the East. We examine some key players and storylines and predict a winner, too.

    Read on for a look at Round 3.

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      Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

      The schedule breaks down as follows:

      • Game 1: Saturday, May 16, 1 p.m. ET (NBC, CBC, TVA Sports)
      • Game 2: Monday, May 18, 8 p.m. (NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports)
      • Game 3: Wednesday, May 20, 8 p.m. (NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports)
      • Game 4: Friday, May 22, 8 p.m. (NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports)
      • Game 5*: Sunday, May 24, 8 p.m. (NBCSN, TVA Sports)
      • Game 6*: Tuesday, May 26, 8 p.m. (NBCSN, TVA Sports)
      • Game 7*: Friday, May 29, 8 p.m. (NBCSN, TVA Sports)

      *If necessary

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        Scott Audette/Getty Images

        Tampa Bay Lightning

        The Bolts took a 3-0 lead on the Montreal Canadiens before Carey Price could blink, outscoring the Habs 10-4 over the first three contests. The first two of them were in Montreal, to boot. That extended the Lightning's dominance over their Atlantic Division rivals to eight straight games without a loss. Price proved hard to put down, however, and the Habs won two straight, threatening to send the series to seven before the Lightning clamped down in Game 6 to win convincingly at home thanks to a strong showing from captain Steven Stamkos.


        New York Rangers

        The Washington Capitals drew first blood on the road and then won both games at home to take a strangling 3-1 series lead. But the Rangers made history coming back from that deficit in two straight playoff seasons. They did it by keeping Caps captain Alex Ovechkin in check—allowing no points in four straight games before he finally scored again in Game 7. But that was the only goal the Rangers would allow on the night thanks to their stingy defense and strong goaltending. The Rangers prevailed in front of their home fans with a 2-1 overtime victory—their 12th straight one-goal game in these playoffs.

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          Mike Stobe/Getty Images

          Will Martin St. Louis show a pulse against his former team?

          If anything can get St. Louis out of his playoff funk, it might be a matchup against his former team. St. Louis has just four assists so far and has seen his ice time plummet in the past couple of games.

          St. Louis is still the Lightning's top playoff point-getter by a wide margin and despite his request to leave the team last year for personal reasons, a lot of people won't soon forget his many contributions there.

          The 39-year-old is one of a few players facing former teams in this series, including free-agent Lightning signing Anton Stralman, who defected from the Rangers in the offseason along with Brian Boyle, and Ryan Callahan—part of the return for St. Louis in the trade. All will have extra jump in their steps. Defenseman Dan Boyle is also a former longtime member of the Lightning.


          Will the Rangers be able to throw off the Triplets?

          The line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov has teamed to score 17 of the 34 Lightning goals. That's half, for those who struggle with math.

          It's especially impressive considering they are all second- or third-year players who previously had no more than four games of playoff experience. It's even more astounding that they typically face the opposition's top trio.

          The Rangers managed to shut down deadly duo Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for much of their second-round series and held Evgeni Malkin off the scoresheet entirely in the opening round. The team's blue line is among the deepest remaining, with none of the top six playing under 17:20 a night. That depth and goalie Henrik Lundqvist's status as one of the best in the world make the Rangers a tough team to score on.

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            Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

            Tyler Johnson

            With all due respect to Steven Stamkos, who looked much better in Round 2 than he did in the opening series, Tyler Johnson has been the Lightning's clutch player throughout these playoffs. While Stamkos was silent against the Detroit Red Wings, Johnson took matters into his own mitts. He leads the playoffs with eight goals and three game-winners. He's also third in points with a dozen through 13 games. At just 5'8" and 183 pounds, the small but skilled center is a lot of fun to watch.


            Derek Stepan

            In the three straight games the Rangers won to overcome the 3-1 deficit against the Capitals, Stepan was the only player to contribute points in every victory. He also scored the series-clinching overtime goal. No biggie. Stepan has been a key for the Rangers all year and was behind only Rick Nash in points per game after missing a chunk of the year with a broken leg. He was playing at a nearly point-per-game pace until a 12-game cold snap that started in mid-February. When he's on top of his game, the Rangers have a more balanced offensive attack.

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              Jared Silber/Getty Images

              Henrik Lundqvist

              The King has a stellar Game 7 record. He joined legends Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy as the only netminders with six victories in those situations when he helped eliminate the Washington Capitals Wednesday with a 2-1 overtime win. He was especially strong in the extra period with the Caps pressing early and outshooting the Rangers 8-5 (it was 8-3 until the last sequence of shots and rebound goal).

              Lundqvist has an incredible .944 save percentage and a 1.60 goals-against average—tops among all netminders who made it beyond the first round.

              His experience may offer him an edge in mental preparation. He told's Dan Rosen that his record in pressure-packed elimination games is a result of his visualization. 

              "I see myself in the situation and I remind myself what I need to do, that's my game," he said. "There is no secrets. I have been doing the same stuff for years. It's about consistency, how I approach it and focus. It helps me be in the right place mentally."


              Ben Bishop

              This is Bishop's first crack at the NHL playoffs after missing out last season with an injury. He's been good, but hasn't had to be stellar thanks to the potent offense in front of him. In short, he's a bit of a wild card in the series.

              In the second round, when the Canadiens chased the big man out of the net early in the second period after scoring three on him, defenseman P.K. Subban suggested Bishop had been lucky in previous games. That just provided some locker room fodder and led to a great response from Bishop when he came out victorious in a 4-1 win.

              "Thank goodness for my lucky horseshoe,” Bishop told reporters, via Sportsnet's Luke Fox.

              His performances have definitely been more than lucky. He has a .931 save percentage and 1.81 goals-against average, good for third among playoff goalies in both categories. He made 41 saves in Game 1 at the Bell Centre to get the Bolts off to a good start to the series.

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                Mike Carlson/Getty Images

                While the Rangers are an incredible and disciplined team that smothers you into submission, the Lightning are explosive.

                The Bolts are averaging 2.5 goals-for per game in the playoffs after leading the league in the regular season with 3.16. The Rangers are averaging two per game this spring and have won all eight games so far by a single goal.

                Having just scored 17 goals in six games against the best goalie in the league this season, Montreal's Carey Price, going up against the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist won't be an intimidation factor for the Lightning. The Bolts won all three games against the Rangers in the regular season this year—just as they had against the Canadiens—scoring 15 goals (14 against Lundqvist) and allowing seven against.

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                  Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

                  The Bolts were the league's best at bulging the twine in the regular season, which was, in part, due to the sniping abilities of captain Steven Stamkos.

                  It is, of course, more difficult to score in the playoffs, where teams clamp down defensively and tend to make many more sacrifices to block pucks from getting to the net. That, combined with the fact they faced a couple of hot goalies in Carey Price and Petr Mrazek, explains the over half-a-goal-per-game dip from the regular season to the first two rounds of the playoffs.

                  Stamkos started the postseason slowly with no goals and three points in seven games in the first round against the Red Wings, but he was fired up against the Canadiens, netting three goals and seven points over the last five games of the series.

                  When he's playing at the top of his game and the Triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov are rolling, the Lightning are difficult to keep off the scoreboard.

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                    Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

                    All the Rangers have to do is avoid early lapses and keep games close, and good things happen

                    Because of their experience, they know Henrik Lundqvist can shut the door late in games and that an opportunistic offense is enough to get them past most teams. But they aren't comeback kings capable of scoring in bunches. 

                    If they can hold the Lightning's shots to the outside as much as possible and mount counterattacks when the chances come, their patience will pay off. 

                    The Rangers have lost just two games in these playoffs when scoring first.


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                      Mike Carlson/Getty Images

                      Experience goes to the Rangers here. They were in the Stanley Cup Final a year ago and earned the Presidents' Trophy in the regular season as an encore of sorts. They have one of the best modern-day NHL goaltenders who has been clutch in the playoffs and play dedicated system hockey that strangles the creativity out of the opposition.

                      So of course I'm picking the younger, more wildly unpredictable Lightning to come out on top of a tight series.

                      I had chosen the Rangers as the Eastern Conference representative in the Cup Final before the puck dropped on the playoffs, but something about the way the young Lightning have overcome big tests in the first two rounds and have increasingly grown more confident and consistent suggests they are ready to make the leap into the elite when hockey is most intense.

                      Prediction: Lightning in six

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