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Four Burning Questions: ECF - Rangers vs. Lightning

By Michael Wax

For the sixth time in the past eight seasons, the Tampa Bay Lightning have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. For the second time in that stretch, they’ll be facing an opponent they’ve already dethroned: the New York Rangers. Since their 2015 match up in the final four, the Rangers have seen a lot of change in their lineup, in goal, and behind their bench. These Rangers, though young, have been battle-tested this postseason with seven-game series wins over the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricanes. Here are four questions that will be answered as the series goes on, with the winner advancing to the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals.

Does Rest Create Rust?

Look, I get it. This question is asked over and over again, and a lot of people are tired of hearing it. But, when you’ve got Lightning players themselves admitting the long rest was a challenge, the question’s valid:

The lightning have played a lot of hockey recently, and any sort of rest between playoff series can help them in the long run. But falling behind in the series against these young and hungry rangers could spell a big issue going forward. Do the lighting have what it takes in game one to at least weather the storm, and at most steal a game on the road? Tonight will tell.

Can the Lightning Second Line Get Going?

Lost in the Lightning’s first two series wins was the contributions they received from the bottom six. 25-year-old Ross Colton and 37-year-old Corey Perry lead the Lightning in playoff goals this postseason with five a piece. Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel have both had their moments as they’ve shifted up and down the lineup. Two players that have struggled in put in particular, however, are mainstays Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli. Killorn, who is one of the most consistent Lightning playoff performers in history, only has four assists in his 11 games played. While he did have a goal called back in game four vs. Florida, he is still fairly behind his normal playoff scoring pace. Anthony Cirelli has been a very solid contributor all around the ice, but his two points (one goal, one assist) rank 15th on this Lightning team. For someone who had a big bounce-back regular season, this production is disappointing. His short-handed goal in game six versus the Leafs was one of the nicest goals of the playoffs, but the goal scoring has been non-existent otherwise. With Braden Point out at least for game one of the Eastern Conference Finals, the rest of the top six is going to have to step up. This includes both Killorn and Cirelli.

Which Team Will Be Road Warriors?

There’s a very common expression in sports: win at home, win the series. For both the Rangers and Lightning, home turf has been huge in these playoffs. The Rangers are 6-1 at home in these playoffs, averaging 4.14 goals for and 2.28 goals against. The Lightning have been just as dominant, going 4-1 with 4.00 goals for and 2.40 goals against. In order for the Lightning to have any chance in this series, they need to dial up some road excellence, where they’ve gone 4-2 with 2.80 goals per game and 2.80 goals against. Coupled with their regular season dud at MSG in the regular season, they’ll need to find a way to win on the road.

Who Wins In Goal?

The unstoppable force is meeting the immovable object. Igor Shesterkin, by all metrics, has been the best goaltender in the NHL this year, and put together one of the greatest seasons by a goaltender in quite some time. Shesterkin’s .935 save percentage was the highest since Cory Schneider and current Bolt Brian Elliott in 2011-12 (.937 and .940, respectively). Shesterkin also led the NHL in Goals Saved Above Expected with 34.1. Despite a shaky start to the playoffs, he’s come back strong since being pulled in game four against Pittsburgh, going 7-3 with a .939 save percentage. But to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. Andrei Vasilevskiy, like Shesterkin, had a great regular season (28.4 GSAA, 2nd) and a similarly rough start to the playoffs (2-3, .880 save percentage). Since game six against the Leafs, he’s been otherworldly (6-0, .968 save percentage). Vasilevskiy’s 11 Goals Saved Above Average also ranks second in these playoffs. This is the most hyped goalie matchup in quite some time.

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