Check out Ryan Dadoun's preview of the Western Conference Finals, between the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks here.
NEW YORK RANGERS VS. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
The Rangers and Lightning battled some adversity during the second round of the NHL playoffs, but they did so under different circumstances. New York came back from a 3-1 series deficit to win against the Washington Capitals in seven games. The Capitals had a one-goal lead in Game 5 until Chris Kreider tied the game with just 1:41 remaining in regulation. Ryan McDonagh tallied the winner in overtime and the Rangers didn't look back while putting together a three-game winning streak. Tampa Bay continued their winning ways from the regular season against Montreal and jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven playoff series. The Canadiens claimed the next two games and the Bolts were motivated to send the Habs packing in Game 6. The Lightning didn't want to return to Montreal for Game 7, so they dominated the Canadiens on their home ice to advance into the third round.
Henrik Lundqvist is among the leaders for the Conn Smythe Trophy. He leads all active goaltenders with a 1.60 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage. Lundqvist has won six straight Game 7s and he's emerged victorious in 14 of his last 17 elimination games. He won an outstanding goalie duel against Washington's Braden Holtby in which every game was decided by one goal and two of the final three matches went to overtime.
Tampa Bay has their own Conn Smythe Trophy contender in undrafted forward Tyler Johnson. He leads the postseason with eight goals and he also ranks first with three game winners. Johnson sits third among all playoff scorers with 12 points in 13 games. The line of Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat have combined to score 17 of Tampa Bay's 34 goals this postseason. The trio has also posted 14 assists between them.
There will be plenty of interested eyes on the players who will be skating against their former teams in the series. Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle helped get the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final last year and they'll be looking to do the same with the Lightning this time around. On the flip side of that, New York defender Dan Boyle was a member of the Lightning the last time they competed for the league championship. There will also be an intense focus placed on Martin St. Louis, who requested a trade to New York last year. He was shipped to the Blueshirts in exchange for Ryan Callahan and a couple of first-round draft picks. The reception at Amalie Arena won't be warm for St. Louis, but he won't have to face that until Game 3.
The Rangers and Lightning played three times during the regular season from Nov. 17-Dec. 1 and the Bolts won each time. Tampa Bay outscored New York by a 15-7 margin. The Lightning were up to the challenge of Montreal's Carey Price, who is the favorite to win the Vezina and Hart Trophy and they'll face another excellent netminder in Lundqvist. Their success against Price and against Lundqvist during the regular season leads me to believe that they up for the challenge again.
With the Triplets line firing on all cylinders and Steve Stamkos stepping up in the semifinal round, the Lightning will be a difficult team to check. The Rangers haven't done much damage offensively either and Ben Bishop has been superb between the pipes for the Lightning, especially when he's been needed most.
Every game in this series will probably be skintight, but I'm going with Tampa Bay to win it in six contests. That would put them back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2004.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Derek Stepan scored the series-clinching tally in overtime of Game 7 to extend his point streak to three games. He has notched one goal and three helpers during that span. Chris Kreider has potted three of his five goals this postseason in the last three games of the series.
Rick Nash had goal and two assists in seven games versus Washington. He has netted only two goals in 12 postseason outings. Martin St. Louis doesn't have a goal in 12 matches in the playoffs. He has picked up two of his four assists in the last four games of the series and he went three appearances without a shot on goal. Keith Yandle has contributed four helpers and 19 shots in 12 postseason matches.
Mats Zuccarello didn't play in Round 2 after he was struck in the head by a shot from teammate Ryan McDonagh in Game 5 against Pittsburgh. His status is uncertain for the Conference Finals, but he is "coming along," according to coach Alain Vigneault.
Dan Boyle was rocked in Game 7 on a hit by Brooks Orpik, but might be ready for the start of the East Final. Vigneault thought Boyle seemed fine after the contest. If he is unable to play then Matt Hunwick will probably dress in his place.
The Rangers rank 15th of 16 teams in the playoffs with a goals per game of 2.00. The other three teams in the Conference Finals all sit in the top four.
However, New York has excelled defensively where their 1.67 goals against per game is the best in the playoffs.
The Blueshirts have scored six power-play goals on 38 opportunities for a 15.8 efficiency rating. That ranks them 11th in the playoffs.
The penalty kill has surrendered just three goals on 28 opposition power plays for an 89.3% kill rate.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Tyler Johnson didn't have a point in the last two games of the series, but he posted two goals three assists in a four-game point streak before that. Nikita Kucherov racked up six goals and one assist in Round 2 after he didn't find the back of the net in the opening round versus Detroit. Steve Stamkos potted three goals and four assists during a five-game point streak to wrap up Tampa Bay's series against the Canadiens. Alex Killorn has produced five points, including four helpers, in his last five outings. Ondrej Palat generated two goals and five points in the last four contests of Round 2.
Valtteri Filppula has gone four straight games without earning a point and he has four shots over that time. Ryan Callahan doesn't have a goal in 12 playoff matches and he's contributed three assists. He didn't have a point in five consecutive contests before an emergency appendectomy prevented him from playing in Game 6 versus Montreal.
Ryan Callahan is considered a possibility to be ready to play in Game 1 versus the Rangers. He resumed skating just three days after his procedure and he hasn't been ruled out yet for Saturday's match.
If Callahan returns then he could slot in on the third line should coach Jon Cooper decide to keep Filppula alongside a surging Stamkos.
Jonathan Marchessault made his NHL playoff debut in Game 6, which kept Jonathan Drouin in the press box. Drouin has dressed in just three games during the 2015 playoffs. If Callahan is back then then Marchessault is likely to be scratched again.
Tampa Bay ranks second in the NHL with 395 hits in the postseason, but the Rangers are right behind them with 392.
The Lightning rank ninth on the power play (18%) and they have received the most chances in the playoffs with a total of 50. Tampa Bay is tied for postseason lead with nine power-play markers and Nikita Kucherov is first on the team with five.
The penalty kill sits sixth in the postseason (86.7%). The Bolts have been shorthanded 45 times, which also leads the playoffs.