The Tampa Bay Lightning had eight full days off since completing their four-game sweep of the Florida Panthers in the second round of the NHL playoffs. We were concerned that it was near impossible for head coach Jon Cooper to come close to replicating the playoff experience in practices preparing for this game. Sure enough, the Lightning looked a step behind the Rangers in Game 1 of this series on June 1st in a 6-2 loss on the road at Madison Square Garden.
Tampa Bay had won eight of their last ten games and fifteen of their last twenty games. Yet they have won just once in their last seven games after winning eight or more of their last ten, and they have won twice in their last nine games after winning fifteen or more of their last twenty games. Perhaps a letdown was inevitable? Yet the Tampa Bay Lightning were 14-0 in the previous two seasons coming off a loss in the playoffs which is why they are the two-time Stanley Cup champions. The resiliency of this team to pick themselves up after a loss, adjust to the things that are not working, and move forward is a trademark of a champion.
Head coach Jon Cooper’s team has continued to demonstrate this quality this season. After losing Game 1 on the road, 5-0, at Toronto in their first round of the playoffs, they respond in Game 2 by soundly defeating the Maple Leafs in their own building, 5-3. The Lightning later returned to Toronto for the seventh game of that series to beat them, 4-3, in overtime.
Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed six goals in Game 1 on Wednesday which is the most he has ever given up in a playoff game. Yet he has a .924 save percentage in his career in the postseason for a reason. In their four-game sweep last round against the explosive Florida Panthers, Vasilevskiy posted a .978 save percentage by stopping 150 of the 154 shots he faced. The Lightning are still without forward Brayden Point with a leg injury. He was their leading goal scorer in the last two postseasons. Tampa Bay played their best hockey at home this year where they had a 31-9-6. On the road, the Lightning had a solid but not spectacular 28-17-2 record. In five playoff games at home, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been nearly unstoppable with a 1.91 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage. Yet on the road in six starts, those numbers drop to a 2.51 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage which are still good numbers but offer the Rangers reasons to be optimistic. If the Rangers are going to make this a long series, they can need to take advantage of the potential rust that Tampa Bay may have.
New York has responded to Gerard Gallant’s coaching. They are 5-0 in potential elimination games this postseason after rallying from a 3-2 deficit to beat Carolina on the road in Game 7, 6-2, on Monday. After a flat effort in Game 5 in Raleigh that drew Gallant’s ire, the Rangers scored five goals and six goals in their dominant victories against the Hurricanes.
The team will be very confident with goalie Igor Shesterkin who has a 2.04 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage in seven playoff starts at home this season after the first two rounds. Those numbers are very similar to the 1.85 goals-against average and .940 save percentage in thirty games that Shesterkin played at Madison Square Garden in the regular season. After losing their first game at home in the playoffs to Pittsburgh in that triple-overtime affair that may have tired Shesterkin out for the next few games, the Rangers have since won all six of their games on home ice. He stopped 37 of the 39 shots he faced in Game 1 to continue his strong play.
Gallant’s team had two distinct advantages in the first game of this series which helped them beat the Lightning by four goals. After playing every other day for the last month having survived two seven-game series, they will be in rhythm and not miss a beat regarding the intensity of the playoffs. Second, they will bring a defensive focus and physicality to their game that neither Toronto more Florida had in the first two rounds of the playoffs against the Lightning.
New York caught a break by hosting an opponent that had not played since May 23rd, yet now they find themselves in unfamiliar territory. This is the first time that Gerard Gallant’s team has had a lead in a playoff series. They lost Game 1 in the opening round against Pittsburgh and in the second round against Carolina. The previous time that the Rangers were playing a game where they were not trailing but not staring at the potential elimination with a loss, it was Game 5 against the Hurricanes when they only attempted 17 shots in a 3-1 loss. New York has won all three of their games since then, yet they have only won twelve of their last thirty games when on a three-game winning streak. Gallant demanded more energy and activity since that game, and the Rangers have found success by being in attack mode when the puck is in the neutral zone. Yet Tampa Bay can counter this tactic which was certainly a central topic for Cooper and his coaching staff in practice yesterday. The Lightning should clamp things down in the middle to force the Rangers’ skaters wide or compel them to chip and chase the puck. Tampa Bay has defended against this approach before in their back-to-back championship runs.
Game 2 appears to still be a game New York needs to win. If the Lightning rebound to steal the second game, they accomplish their goal of seizing home-ice advantage as they go back home. Yet even with a loss, Tampa Bay still has three of the remaining five games in front of their home fans, and the old adage is that a playoff series does not start until a team loses at home.
Good luck - TDG.