Eastern Conference Final preview: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New York Rangers
Seven years ago, the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning faced off in the 2015 Eastern Conference Final, with the Bolts winning in seven games.
A lot has happened since then. The Rangers tried to keep competing but couldn't get past the second round in the coming years. They half-heartedly rebuilt, trading captain Ryan McDonagh to Tampa Bay and making a few other moves before the 2019 acquisitions of Artemi Panarin, Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba dramatically accelerated the process.
With Fox and goaltender Igor Shesterkin turning from bluechip prospects into elite players way ahead of schedule, they've unexpectedly found themselves in the position to compete for a Stanley Cup.
The Lightning, meanwhile, have made the Conference Final in five out of seven seasons since then, winning two Stanley Cups in a row and filling out the basic core they possessed in 2015 with new stars and top-of-the-lineup talent.
So here we are, with two teams at very different points in their timelines facing off. If the Edmonton Oilers-Colorado Avalanche series is exciting because of its high-flying offensive talent (which has already paid off after one game), this one is billed as a goaltending battle for the ages.
Sure, these teams have some other interesting parallels: Two dynamic Russian playmaking wingers in Nikita Kucherov and Panarin, and two elite two-way defencemen in Victor Hedman and Fox. But the headliner here is arguably the two best netminders in the game going head to head with Shesterkin and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Who will come out on top?
My playoff previews are stats-based, going off of both macro- and micro-level statistics gathered by TopDownHockey and AllThreeZones respectively. This allows us to look not only at high-level results (like goals, shots, and expected goals) but also the stylistic process that creates them (like passes, shot types and transition play) to get a better sense of how the teams match up. Instead of comparing offence to offence and defence to defence, I'll be breaking down the offence vs. defence matchups.
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