Friday, 29 May 2015

Down To Three

Game Seven tonight at Madison Square Garden appeared to be a defensive struggle as the two teams battled through two periods in a scoreless tie. A Scott Oake interview on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada during the second intermission with Steven Stamkos saw the Lightning captain suggest that more traffic would be needed if the Lightning were to beat Henrik Lundquist on this night. Twenty minutes later, Ben Bishop set an NHL record with his second shutout and second assist in two Game Sevens in the same playoff year, and the Lightning grabbed their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final with a 2-0 victory over the Rangers.

There were a lot of great performances in the Eastern Conference Championship, but the story should once again focus on Tampa Bay's second line where Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Johnson are carrying this team to new heights after having led the Norfolk Admirals to a Calder Cup three seasons ago in the AHL. These three players are the engine driving this team right now on the offensive side of the puck, and it's hard not to be impressed by the undrafted Johnson who was clutch in all three rounds.

Defensively, Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman were the foundation of a defence-by-committee approach the Lightning are using. Hedman really turned a corner in the 2013-14 season to become Tampa Bay's most reliable defenceman, and the second-overall pick in the 2009 draft is showing why the Lightning had faith in him before Steve Yzerman and Jon Cooper took over this team.

Stralman, meanwhile, is going back to the Stanley Cup Final after having played in them as a member of the New York Rangers last season. You have to wonder how a player of Stralman's strengths was traded twice in one summer from Toronto to Calgary to Columbus, but Stralman really hit his stride after leaving the Blue Jackets via free agency and joining the New York Rangers. He blocks shots, he's excellent defensively, and he compliments the offensive defencemen that the Lightning have by being responsible in both ends when defence is thrown to the wind.

As we've seen in these playoffs, the Lightning tend to play a little more high-risk than most teams, but they used this style all season in being the highest scoring team in the NHL. It can be argued that they should have focused more on defence as the playoffs opened, but they took down Detroit, Montreal, and, now, the New York Rangers where those three teams were certainly more defensive than the Lightning may ever be under Jon Cooper. This offensive-mindedness isn't a detriment, however, when you realize that after tomorrow, the Lightning will be one of two teams left standing after this season.

For the Rangers, there were calls for Nash and St. Louis to end their Alexei Yashin impressions and show up for the biggest game of the Rangers' season. The Rangers were getting contributions from their secondary scorers such as Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, and Derick Brassard, but the two guys who are the biggest names on the roster who aren't Swedish were practically invisible in these playoffs. This is not an uncommon thing for Rick Nash, but Martin St. Louis has to be worried about his roster spot due to his age and playoff performance.

Changes will happen in New York. There is still a solid core of players in the Big Apple to keep the Rangers challenging next season and beyond, and they have some good players in Hartford like Oscar Lindberg, Ryan Haggerty, and Dylan McIlrath. They do need to start stockpiling some good young talent, though, and that will be Glen Sather's challenge going forward as the Rangers' roster ages and/or gets overpriced. Change, as they say, is good, though, and the Rangers might find themselves a solid diamond in the rough if they begin that stockpiling now.

It will be interesting to see who their opponents are in the West. If Anaheim wins, Tampa Bay will fly to Anaheim for Game One on Wednesday. If Chicago wins, the Blackhawks will visit Tampa Bay to open the Stanley Cup Final. If we were judging this on uniforms alone, I'd be cheering for the Blackhawks to meet the Lightning, but the game isn't decided on a runway. Saturday night will be the final game in Western Conference Final to determine who meets the Lightning.

Who do you have in that game?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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