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Rested Lightning face challenge from comeback Rangers

Sportsnaut
Jan 2, 2022; New York, New York, USA;  Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ross Colton (79) and New York Rangers left wing Alexis Lafreniere (13) battle for the puck during the second period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Differing track records converge Wednesday night in the heart of Manhattan when the Tampa Bay Lightning visit the New York Rangers for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

The Lightning are two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, while the Rangers are amid a quicker-than-anticipated roster rebuild, with a group whose playoff experience consists mainly through comebacks of the current playoffs.

Tampa Bay is attempting to become the first team to win three-consecutive Stanley Cup titles since the New York Islanders won four consecutive from 1980-83. The Lightning also are attempting to become the first team to reach three-straight Stanley Cup Finals since the Edmonton Oilers from 1983-85.

The Lightning are heading into their third straight appearance in the conference finals with nine days of rest. They faced elimination twice in the first round before beating the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games and then cruised to a four-game sweep of the Florida Panthers, who won the President’s Trophy for having the best record in the NHL during the regular season.

In the second round, Tampa Bay outscored Florida 13-3 while getting a dominant performance from goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who stopped 49 shots in Game 4 and made 151 saves overall. He is 42-17 in his past 59 playoff games with seven shutouts.

Tampa Bay is headed to the conference finals for the sixth time in eight years while on a six-game winning streak and is hoping its lengthy layoff helped them recover from any nicks and bruises from the first two rounds.

The Lightning’s most notable injury was to center Brayden Point, who scored two goals with two assists against Toronto but did not play in the second round due to a lower body injury.

Even without Point, Tampa Bay is getting plenty from its star trio of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. Kucherov has 15 points (four goals), Stamkos has eight points (four goals) and Hedman has 10 points (two goals).

Tampa Bay is also getting plenty from other parts of its lineup as Ross Colton and Corey Perry have each scored five goals in the playoffs. In the sweep over Florida, Pat Maroon, Erik Cernak, Colton and Pierre Edouard-Bellemare each scored game-winning goals.

“That’s the beauty about our team,” Stamkos said. “Everyone contributes and that’s what you need this time of the year. We talk about it all the time, that you just never know when it’s going to be your moment.”

Said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper: “I just don’t think you advance unless everybody contributes. You can’t have the same guys keep doing it.

The Lightning have won 10 straight postseason series, but are amid their longest break in between series since also getting nine days off following a second-round sweep of the Washington Capitals in 2011. They ended up losing the conference finals to the Boston Bruins in seven games.

New York is in the conference finals for the first time since 2015 when it lost in seven games to Tampa Bay. The only remaining player from that group is Chris Kreider, who scored two of his eight postseason goals in Monday’s 6-2 rout at Carolina in Game 7 of the second round.

Kreider finished with 52 goals during the regular season as the Rangers produced 27 comeback wins four years after telling season ticket holders a rebuild was set to begin.

Five times over the first two rounds of these playoffs, the Rangers have pulled off victories when facing elimination against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hurricanes.

“I love the way our guys are competing and battling,” New York coach Gerard Gallant said. “I’ve said 100 times this year, we’re not perfect, but we find ways to win.”

Goalie Igor Shesterkin helped the Rangers reach this point by improving his performances. Since being pulled in Game 4 during the first round, he is 7-3 with a .939 save percentage, a 2.09 goals-against average and capped the series with 37 saves Monday.

The Rangers are the fourth team in NHL history to win multiple postseason series when facing a multi-game deficit in each series though they pulled off those comebacks mostly against backup goalies.

In the opening round, New York faced third-string goalie Louis Dominque for six games before beating Tristan Jarry, who was dealing with a foot injury. Against Carolina, the Rangers faced Antti Raanta, who was playing in place of Frederik Andersen.

“Backs against the wall five times now and we’ve come through all five,” New York defenseman Adam Fox said. “Definitely want to keep this momentum going into the next round.”

–Field Level Media