NHL Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Rangers vs. Lightning

Tonight the Eastern Conference Finals begin between the back to back Stanley Cup Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Rangers. This series showcases one of the best goalies in playoff history and Igor Shesterkin, a young (likely) Vezina winner that had one of the best seasons in NHL history between the pipes.

The Lightning are looking to become the first team to win three straight Stanley Cups since the New York Islanders won their four in a row from 1980-1983. The extended length of going through four series two years in a row takes its toll on a team which is why I didn’t really see the Bolts getting it done for a third year in a row going into the playoffs but now that they’re in the East Finals with an easier matchup than I expected against the Rangers, I could see them giving the Avs a pretty great series for the Stanley Cup Finals if both teams advance.

The Bolts had a solid regular season this year, ending in third place in the Atlantic Division for the regular season with a 41-23-8 record. They had a great stretch to close the regular season, winning seven of their last nine games, many of them in blowouts. They scored an average of 5.66 goals per game in their last six games of the regular season. Tampa’s offense took a slight step back this season after the last two years, but they still were very good, averaging 3.48 goals per game, seventh most in the NHL. They were very efficient in their shooting, generating an average of 29.8 shots per game but having a third best in the NHL 11.2% shooting percentage. The Bolts power play, scoring on 23.9% of those opportunities, eighth most in the NHL. Defensively Tampa has been very good this season as well. They’ve allowed a sixth fewest in the NHL average of 2.78 goals per game and a seventh fewest average of 29.8 shots per game. Andrei Vasilevskiy’s one of the best goalies in the NHL and has a 2.49 GAA and .916 save percentage. The Bolts were one of the most penalized teams in hockey this season with the second most penalty minutes in the NHL but their penalty kill was good, ranking eleventh in the NHL, killing off 80.6% of those penalties and scoring seven shorthanded goals.

The Lightning matched up with the Maple Leafs in the first round, winning the series in seven games to advance. That was an awesome series that turned out to be one of the best of the first round. The Leafs were a tough matchup for the Bolts in the first round but the back to back Cup Champs held them off with the playoff experience and ability to bounce back incredibly from losses. I expected the second round Battle of Florida to be just as good, but I was wrong on that one as Tampa dismantled their rival Panthers and swept them. Florida won the President’s Trophy with the best record of the regular season with an incredible offense that lead the NHL. That was no match for Andrei Vasilevskiy’s play in goal though. One of the best goalies in NHL playoff history didn’t allow more than a goal in any games of the series, limiting the Panthers to three total goals in four games.

Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Lightning have scored an average of  3.33 goals per game with a 10.6% shooting percentage on an average of 31 shots per game. Their power play has scored at a 22.9% clip. The Bolts penalty kill has been very good, killing off 87.8% and scoring a short handed goal. The Lightning have allowed the fewest goals of the remaining four teams in the playoffs, an average of just 2.46 goals per game and have allowed an average of 33.64 shots per game. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been fantastic, just as he has the last two years with a 2.23 GAA and .932 save percentage, coming off a 49 save shutout in Game 4 against Florida to close out the second round.

The Rangers finished the regular season in second place in the Metro with a 52-24-6 record. Igor Shesterkin was easily the best goalie in the NHL this season and guaranteed Vezina winner with a 2.07 GAA, .935 save percentage and 6 shutouts. With his play in goal and fantastic defense, the Rags allowed the second fewest goals in the NHL this season, an average of only 2.49 goals per game. They’ve allowed an eleventh fewest in the NHL average of 30.8 shots per game. Their penalty kill is the seventh best in the NHL at 82.3%. Offensively, New York hasn’t done anything all that special, averaging 3.05 goals per game (16th in the NHL) but they have played much better on the offensive end of the ice in the second half of the season. The Rangers have only generated a fifth fewest in the NHL average of 29.2 shots per game but they’re pretty efficient with those shots, with an eighth highest in the NHL shooting percentage of 10.5%. The Rags power play has been very good, scoring on 25.2% of those chances, fourth most in the NHL.

The Rags grinded through two long seven game series to get to the Eastern Conference Finals, knocking off the Penguins in the first round and the Hurricanes in the second round. I picked the Rangers to beat the Penguins in the first round and doubled down on it mid series which became a real big sweat for me, but the Rags came through rattling off three straight wins to come back from down 3-1 to knock off the Pens, cashing a bunch of bets along the way. I didn’t expect the same out of them in a boring series against the Hurricanes. In Games 1-6, the home teams grinded out low scoring wins and I bet that pretty successfully, hammering the unders and jumping on a handful of the money lines. I got crushed though in Game 7 on Monday night though, expecting the Canes at home to knock off the Rangers and the under to hit. I couldn’t be more wrong as the Rangers dominated on the road with a 6-2 win. 

The Rangers have been good on both ends of the ice in the first two rounds of the playoffs. They’ve averaged 3.43 goals per game with a 10.6% shooting percentage on an average of 32.36 shots per game. Their power play has only trailed Colorado out of all playoff teams, scoring on 32.5% of their chances. They have killed off 80.5% of their penalties and have scored shorthanded twice. New York has allowed an average of 3 goals per game during the playoffs. Igor Shesterkin bounced back from a not very impressive first round with a very good second round and through the playoffs has a 2.68 GAA and .928 save percentage. 

During the regular season these teams played three times and surprisingly, the Rangers swept the Bolts. On New Years Eve the Rangers won 4-3 in a shootout in Tampa. In their second game a few days later on January 2nd in MSG, the Rangers won 4-0 with Igor Shesterkin making 40 saves in his shutout. In their last matchup of the regular season on March 19th in Tampa Bay, Mika Zibanejad scored on the power play with just 16 seconds remaining in the third period for a 2-1 Rangers win.

The playoffs are a completely different animal though. I think the Rangers are ahead of schedule to even be at this point to play in the Conference Finals. They played two long seven game series ahead of this and Tampa hasn’t played in over a week so they’ve had plenty of rest going into this series. The Bolts have plenty of experience playing in the playoffs and I think Vasilevskiy proves that he’s still the best playoff goalie in the NHL as the Lightning end up knocking off Shesterkin and the Rangers in five or six games to go onto their third straight Stanley Cup Finals. I also don’t particularly think that not having home ice ends up mattering for them in this series. This was a great run for the Rangers and New York’s fans should be thrilled with where this team ended up ahead of schedule this season. I’ll go with 2.5 units on the Lightning to win the series.

To start off this series with Game 1 in MSG tonight, I think the Lightning get the win on the road to take back home ice right away. I’ll go with 1.5 units on the Bolts ML. Along with that, I expect the games in this series to trend under with solid goaltending battles between Shesterkin and Vasilevskiy and I’ll go with a unit on the under.

Series Bets

2.5u Lightning (-182)

Game 1 Bets

1.5u Lightning ML (-134)

1u Lighting/Rangers under 5.5 (-129)

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