2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs Conference Finals Preview: New York Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Updated: May 15, 2015 at 12:47 pm by Cam Lewis

I can’t say I’m surprised at all. The New York Rangers made easy work of the Penguins in the first round, then proceeded to steal their second round series from the Washington Capitals. Even when the Caps were up 3-1 in the series, it was nearly impossible to count the Rangers out. The Tampa Bay Lightning were almost on the wrong side of an epic collapse of their own, letting the Canadiens back into the series after going up 3-0. 

Although their paths getting to this point have been a little unpredictable, these are the two teams that belong here. I don’t think this Eastern Conference Finals matchup comes as much of a surprise to anybody as the Rangers and Lightning really are the cream of the crop in the East. On one hand, you have last year’s Eastern Conference Champions and the President’s Trophy winners, and then you have the team who looks poised to become the league’s next powerhouse. Then you also have Martin St. Louis and Ryan Callahan facing their former teams in a playoff series, which is pretty cool. 

Are the Rangers bound for another shot at their first Stanley Cup since 1994? Or are the Lightning ready to establish themselves as the team to beat in the East? Let’s take a look.

Season Series

This is the first time that the Lighting and Rangers have ever met in a playoff series. It’s also going to be the first time these two teams face each other since Dec. 1, 2014, so it’s difficult to really get a gauge on how they’re going to stack up. The Lightning won all three games in this year’s season series with the Rangers, but like I said before, all of those games were in the first half of the season. The games also came before the Rangers really came into their own, as they held just an 11-9-4 record at the beginning of December. 

The Lightning rolled over the Rangers 5-1 in their first meeting of the season back on Nov. 17, outshooting New York 30-16. Just about every player on the Lightning had a Corsi For percentage above 50 per cent that game, which would back up the fact that Tampa dominated the Rangers all game. Their second meeting a couple weeks later was more of the same, but the result wasn’t quite so lopsided. The Lightning outshot the Rangers 29-19 and dominated in the possession battle, coming out on top with a 4-3 win. The one game that New York actually outplayed Tampa was their third and final meeting of the season where the Rangers outshot the Lightning 35-20, yet still ended up on the wrong side of a 6-3 loss. 

Of course, this is a very small sample size, and the regular season and the playoffs are a totally different animal, but the Lightning have had the Rangers number so far this season. Has this dominance been warranted? 

Even Strength 

Although the Lightning and Rangers were two of the better teams in the league this season, neither of them have been overly impressive so far in the playoffs. The Lightning, who boasted the second best Corsi For percentage at even strength during the regular season, have been dominated in shot attempts through two rounds. In fact, only two teams, Minnesota and Calgary, have a lower Corsi For and Fenwick For percentage. This comes as quite a surprise because the Canadiens, who they just faced in the second round, finished the regular season as one of the worst Corsi teams in the league. 

You can chalk up Tampa’s success so far in the playoffs to some really good puck luck. Their 102.1 even strength, score adjusted PDO is second in the playoffs only to the Ducks, largely because they own the second highest team shooting percentage at 8.6 per cent. It’s hard to say if Tampa Bay will be able to keep up this really good shooting percentage against the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist, but they managed to keep it up against Carey Price, so time will tell if what they’re doing is legitimate or not. 

During the regular season, the Rangers were a middle of the pack team in terms of Corsi and Fenwick percentages. Despite that, they owned the best PDO in the league at even strength, which would make sense, considering they were a three top team offensively and defensively despite being roughly a 50 percent possession team. One thing the Rangers do really well is get the puck to the goalie. Although they don’t get as many shots attempts as you’d like, 74.1 of them made it to the goalie, which can certainly help lead to a nice shooting percentage. 

Like Tampa, the Rangers haven’t been strong in the Corsi or Fenwick battle so far in the playoffs, but their percentages aren’t much worse than their regular season figures, so it isn’t quite as surprising. They’ve maintained a similar level of goaltending in the playoffs as they did during the year, which is no surprise, but their shooting percentage and on net percentage have both taken a dip. This could be the result of strong goaltender survivorship in the playoffs, or tighter defence making it more difficult to get high quality scoring chances. Or it could all be because Rick Nash has a 4.4 shooting percentage. Who knows. 

Special Teams

The Lightning scored way more goals (14) on the power play this season than New York did, but oddly enough, they didn’t have very different power play percentages. This is because the Lightning were given the fourth most power play opportunities in the league, while the Rangers were given the fifth fewest. As a result, it appears at a glance that Tampa Bay is this amazing power play juggernaut, when in reality, they have a league average power play that simply scored a lot of goals due to having such a high volume of chances to do so. 

The Lightning have the most power play goals in the playoffs so far, but of course, it’s because they’ve already had 50 (!!!) power play opportunities, which is 12 more than the Rangers, the next best team. So even though Tampa’s power play is operating at a mediocre 18 percent efficiency, they have the most goals scored. They key for the Rangers here is to find a way to stay out of the box. The Lightning seem to be able to draw a tremendous amount of penalties, which is very important to their offence. 

The Rangers were one of the better teams on the penalty kill during the regular season and that’s carried over into the playoffs. New York has been shorthanded 28 times and they’ve only conceded three power play goals. If the Rangers can either stay out of the box, or shut down Tampa’s power play, they’ll be giving themselves a huge boost in this series. 

Goaltending 

Although Ben Bishop has played well, it’s silly to say New York doesn’t have the advantage between the pipes in this series. The Rangers have a team save percentage of 94.2 in the playoffs at even strength, which is an improvement on their already good regular season save percentage of 92.8 (although King Henrik missed half the season). Like I said, though, Bishop has been no slouch, as Tampa boasts a very respectable 93.5 team save percentage at even strength so far in the playoffs. 

The Rangers have a slight advantage here, mainly because Bishop is more inconsistent and less experienced than Lundqvist.

Stats courtesy of war-on-ice and Hockey Reference. 

Prediction 

This is a tough one to predict. You have the two best teams in the East, two of the better offenses in the league, and two really good goaltenders. Neither team has played their best consistently through the playoffs, but both have played well when it matters most. I’ll say Tampa Bay in seven games.