There is no such thing as too close for comfort when it comes to the New York Rangers.
Alain Vigneault's club has shown this postseason that they're perfectly comfortable winning by the slimmest of margins. In fact, New York has arrived at the Eastern Conference finals without playing a single game that was decided by more than one goal. Dating back to their appearance in last season's Stanley Cup Finals, the Rangers have set an NHL record by playing in 14 straight games decided by only one goal.
New York is after its second straight trip to the Cup Finals after losing to Los Angeles in five games last spring. The Rangers entered this postseason as the Presidents' Trophy winners, claiming the NHL's best record for the first time since they won their last Stanley Cup in 1994.
Vigneault's team is coming off a tough battle against Washington. For a second straight season the resilient Blueshirts overcame a 3-1 deficit to reach the conference finals. New York rallied to beat Pittsburgh in the second round in 2014 before repeating the comeback this season against the Capitals and the Rangers are the first team in NHL history to come back from a 3-1 hole to win a best-of-seven series in consecutive postseasons.
As always, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is the guy holding everything together for New York. The Swedish star seems to do his best work when his team is backed into a corner as he owns a 14-3 record in 17 career games when the Rangers are facing elimination.
Lundqvist stopped 35-of-36 shots in New York's 2-1 overtime win against visiting Washington in Game 7, improving his lifetime numbers in Game 7s to 6-1 with a .97 goals against average and .966 save percentage. His six Game 7 victories ties him with Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy for the most in NHL history.
The 33-year-old is sporting a 1.60 GAA and .944 save percentage in 12 games this spring, helping New York lead the league in team defense with just 1.67 goals allowed per game.
The offense, meanwhile, has struggled to produce in these playoffs, averaging just 2.00 goals per outing. Only Pittsburgh, which fell in five games to New York during the opening round, is sporting a lower scoring average in this postseason.
The frustrating thing is scoring wasn't an issue for the top-seeded Rangers during the regular season, as the club finished third in the NHL with 3.02 GPG.
New York is the only team left in the postseason without a single player having reached double digits in points. Centermen Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan are currently tied for the club lead with eight points apiece. Brassard has five goals and three assists, while Stepan has three goals and five helpers.
Along with Brassard and Stepan, dangerous winger Chris Kreider is another guy pulling his weight for the New York offense. Kreider is capable of taking over a game for New York with his combination of size and speed and is tied with Brassard for the team lead with five goals.
Top left wing Rick Nash has provided solid production with seven points (2G, 5A), but New York is relying on him to score more goals. Nash led the Rangers with 42 goals during the regular season and his struggles hitting the net in the playoffs is nothing new for the 30-year-old.
Nash has 378 goals over 862 career regular-season games for an average of .44 goals per game, but that average drops to .13 percent in the playoffs thanks to seven goals in 53 postseason outings. Nash's problems scoring goals this time of year tends to overshadow his superb two-way play, as he provides terrific defense and back-checking for the Rangers.
The only thing Nash can do is keep on shooting. He leads the Rangers with 45 shots through the first two rounds.
An even bigger problem for the New York offense is the play of veteran winger Martin St. Louis, who only has four assists through 12 games. This comes a year after St. Louis carried the Rangers for a sizeable stretch of the 2014 postseason, ending last spring's playoffs with 15 points (8G, 7A).
Although the finale against Washington ended in triumph for his club, the recent Game 7 was a low point for St. Louis. He was benched for the final 10 minutes of the third period before getting back on the ice in OT.
The Rangers have to hope facing his old team in the conference finals can get the 39-year-old St. Louis back on track. St. Louis was a staple on Tampa's top line for more than a decade and helped the club win a Stanley Cup in 2004 before demanding a trade during the 2013-14 season, when he was serving as Tampa's captain. The Lightning ultimately complied with the request and acquired former New York captain Ryan Callahan in exchange for St. Louis.
Mats Zuccarello could provide a big boost to New York's offense if he is able to return in this series, but his status is a mystery. The winger hasn't played since Game 5 against Pittsburgh when teammate Ryan McDonagh's slap shot hit him in the head, causing a concussion. Vigneault recently said Zuccarello is "progressing" but it's uncertain what that means for his availability against Tampa Bay.
McDonagh is the workhorse on the New York blue line, logging 24 minutes, 46 seconds per game through the first two series. He also leads the club's defensemen with six points on two goals and four assists. Dan Girardi, McDonagh's usual skating partner, and Keith Yandle each have four assists this spring while Dan Boyle has recorded two goals and two assists from the blue line.
Boyle's status for Game 1 of the conference finals also is up in the air after he missed the final 10:27 and all of OT in Game 7 after absorbing a huge hit from Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik. If Boyle is unable to play, Matt Hunwick will likely draw into the lineup and take his spot on the third pairing with Yandle.
Marc Staal only has one assist in 12 games this spring, but he is a steady defensive defenseman with size and skating ability to play a shutdown role. He normally is paired with Kevin Klein, who has one assist in seven games after returning from a broken arm for the start of the Washington series.
As expected, the Rangers have been excellent on the penalty kill, allowing only three power-play goals on 28 chances this spring. It also shouldn't be a surprise to learn the club's power play has struggled a bit, producing goals on just 15.8 percent (6-of-38) of its opportunities.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 50-24-8 (2nd place, Atlantic)
2015 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Detroit 4-3 in conference quarterfinals, defeat Montreal 4-2 in conference semifinals
Heading into the second round of the playoffs, Steven Stamkos' lack of production was a concern for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Fortunately for the Bolts, that no longer seems like an issue.
The Lightning beat Detroit in the opening round despite the fact that Stamkos failed to score a goal in any of Tampa's seven games during the close series. After failing to score in Game 1 of the second round against Montreal, the captain's goal drought in the postseason had reached 11 games, but things would soon change.
Stamkos, who was second in the NHL during the regular season with 43 goals, scored three times and added four assists in the last five games of the Montreal series, helping his club dispatch the Canadiens in six games. Tampa's star centerman now has 10 total points (3G, 7A) this postseason, leaving him three points shy of his personal-best total from the 2011 playoffs, which marked the last time the Bolts made it to the Eastern Conference finals.
Back in 2011, Stamkos was only 21 years old and his Lightning were heavy underdogs against the Boston Bruins. They were able to give Boston a tough battle, however, pushing the series to seven games before losing the decisive contest by a 1-0 count. This time around, the Lightning are underdogs once again as they face the Rangers with a chance to gain their first Stanley Cup Finals berth since winning the franchise's only championship back in 2004.
While Stamkos has had his ups and downs in 2015 postseason, goaltender Ben Bishop has consistently raised his game. The 6-foot-7 netminder went 40-13-5 with a .916 save percentage and 2.32 goals against average during the regular season and is boasting a .931 save percentage and 1.81 GAA through 13 outings in the playoffs.
Bishop was a big reason Tampa was able to avenge last season's first-round exit against Montreal. The 28-year-old American missed all four games of a sweep versus the Canadiens in 2014, but was a difference-maker for the Bolts in the rematch. Including his five wins against the Habs in the regular season, Bishop beat Montreal nine times during the 2014-15 campaign, becoming the first goalie to defeat the Canadiens that many times in one season since Glenn Hall did it for Chicago during the 1960-61 campaign.
Tampa's offense has helped support Bishop with 2.62 goals per game in the postseason, but it could do better. The club led the NHL with 3.16 goals per outing during the regular season and likely needs to be closer to that number to overcome the Rangers in Round 3.
Ostensibly, the Stamkos' line, which also features wingers Alex Killorn and Callahan, is Tampa's top unit, but the second line has been the most dangerous for the Lightning in the postseason. Known collectively as the "Triplets," centerman Tyler Johnson, left wing Ondrej Palat and right winger Nikita Kucherov are all 24 years old or younger and the offense they've provided this spring has been a bundle of joy.
Johnson, 24, garnered most of the accolades in the early part of the playoffs and is leading the league with eight goals this spring while also adding four assists. Kucherov took the lead in Round 2, torching Montreal for six goals and an assist. Overall, the 21-year-old Russian is second on Tampa with 11 points (6G, 5A) in the postseason.
Palat, 24, has added three goals and five assists in the playoffs and five of his points (2G, 3A) came during the last four games of the Montreal series.
Killorn is fourth on Tampa in scoring this spring with nine points on three goals and six assists, while Callahan has only provided three helpers. Callahan also missed Game 6 against Montreal after undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Monday, but he was back at practice three days after the procedure. He is expected to be back in the lineup soon and perhaps as early as Game 1.
Callahan was a fourth-round pick by New York in 2004 and ascended to the captaincy over eight seasons with the club. He has four goals and an assist in three games against the Rangers since being traded for St. Louis.
Bolts coach Jon Cooper has dressed only 11 forwards in favor of seven defensemen several times in this postseason and the formula has produced terrific results. One of those times came in Game 6 with Callahan out of the lineup, but Cooper also has employed the strategy before the physical winger ran into appendix problems.
Callahan won't be alone in facing his old team in this series, as fellow forward Brian Boyle and defenseman Anton Stralman also have spent time with the Rangers. In fact, both Boyle and Stralman both played big parts in New York's run to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring before opting to sign with Tampa last summer.
Boyle is part of a bottom-six forward group for Cooper that includes fellow veterans Valtteri Filppula and Brenden Morrow as well as younger pieces like J.T. Brown, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette. Filppula has provided the most offensive production of that bunch, recording six points on two goals and four assists through the first two rounds.
At 24 years of age, Victor Hedman has matured into the all-around star defenseman Tampa believed he would be when the club picked him second overall at the 2009 draft. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound Swede can skate, stick handle and play with a physical edge.
Hedman has scored a total of 23 goals over the last two regular seasons and is leading the Lightning blue line in points this spring with six points on one goal and five assists. He also boasts a plus-seven rating while anchoring the back end with an average ice time of 22:55 seconds in 13 playoff games.
Stralman has helped with his countryman's maturation process and is perfect fit for Hedman on the top defensive pairing. The former Ranger has a goal and four assists this spring and is averaging 22:22 of ice time per tilt.
Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn make up a strong second pairing for Cooper, while Matt Carle and Andrej Sustr are the third duo. Nikita Nesterov is usually the guy drawing into the lineup when Tampa chooses to use seven defensemen.
Outside of Carle, who has yet to score in this postseason, each Tampa defenseman has one goal this spring.
While Tampa has seen its offensive production go down in the playoffs, the club has gone from allowing 2.51 GPG during the regular season to just 2.15 in the playoffs.
The Bolts' special teams play this postseason has room for improvement, especially the power play. Tampa has killed off 86.7 percent (39-of-45) of its penalties, while scoring nine times on 50 chances (18 percents) with the man advantage.
The good news is Tampa has been drawing plenty of penalties, as it leads the league with 50 power-play opportunities this spring. The Rangers have the second most chances with the man advantage, going to the power play 38 times through the first two rounds.
The Lightning and Rangers have never met before in the postseason and Game 1 of this series will mark only the fourth encounter between the clubs in 2014-15 and the first since Dec. 1.
Although it's been a while since the clubs faced each other, it's hard to look past what Tampa Bay did to the Rangers this season. The Lightning not only won all three games but also were able to score at will against New York, something few teams are able to do against Lundqvist and his stingy defense.
Tampa scored 15 times over the three tilts and ended the regular-season series with a 6-3 win at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 1. The six goals tied for the most scored against New York this season and the Rangers never surrendered that many again after that clash in early December.
Stamkos boasted five points (2G, 3A) in the season series, while Johnson added two goals and four assists. Palat chipped in a goal and three assists to help Tampa dominate New York.
St. Louis posted two goals against his old club, while Nash had a goal and two assists over three games. Kreider went pointless in the season series.
Lundqvist was 0-3 with a 4.74 GAA against Tampa this season, while Bishop went 3-0 with a 2.34 GAA.
The Lightning have more skill than New York up front and like to play an up- tempo style. Although it didn't happen in the earlier meetings this season, the Rangers do have the speed to keep Tampa's skill players in check.
Tampa's success against New York in the regular season shouldn't be overlooked, but neither should the Rangers' playoff experience. It's that experience, and the presence of a world-class goalie, that allows the Blueshirts to grind out series wins even when facing elimination multiple times in a series.
This should be another extremely close series and it's difficult to pick against New York no matter what happened in the regular season.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Rangers in 7