East finals takeaways after two games: What we’ve seen and what’s next
1: 52 AM ET
- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
The Tampa Bay Lightning entered their Eastern Conference finals matchup against the New York Rangers after a well-executed sweep of the Florida Panthers and as a well-rested team, getting nine days off between series.
Two games into this series, and the Lightning are struggling offensively against a Rangers team who has been in its stride after seven straight battles. New York defeated the visiting Lightning 6-2, in Game 1. While Game 2 was closer, the Rangers were able to play at their tempo and kept Tampa Bay on its heels during a 3-2 victory at Madison Square Garden to build a 2-0 series lead.
” We’ve been a tough team so far,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant stated. “I think we are a great hockey team. We have played great hockey in the playoffs. We find a way win games. “
As the action moves to Tampa (Florida) for Sunday’s Game 3, here are five takeaways. The Lightning have gone from rushing toward a three-peat to fighting to their playoff lives.
The Rangers are for real
We’ve seen this before in the Stanley Cup playoffs, haven’t we? Teams that discover their identity during a postseason trip. Teams that “learn how to win” during adverse moments, such as the Rangers bouncing back from a triple-overtime loss and a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, or rallying from 2-0 and 3-2 holes to upset the Carolina Hurricanes. Teams that fit together in a way their general managers planned. This could be due to getting healthy at the right moment or by using the right line combinations such as the Rangers’ highly-hyped Kid Line.
The Rangers’ four playoff games have been their best. They are able to possess the puck and buzz the offensive zone. They are scoring balanced goals from multiple lines and multiple defensemen. When their systems break down and opponents get their chances, goalie Igor Shesterkin has been phenomenal: a . 946 save percentage, not giving up more than two goals in those four games, while the Rangers averaged five goals per game. We heard throughout the year that we wouldn’t be able to make it to the playoffs. But there is a lot of belief in the room. The outside opinions don’t affect anyone,” defenseman Adam Fox said. “I don’t believe that outside noise or perceptions of our team affect our mindset going into games. “
The streak is over
Since 2020, the Lightning had been able to rely on one thing consistently: If they lost a game in the playoffs, they were going to win the next one. They did it three times in the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They did it 18 straight games overall in the postseason, setting an NHL record. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was 18-0 with a 1. 49 goals-against average, a . 942 save percentage and five shutouts during that remarkable run.
The Lightning lost Game 1 against the Rangers. And then they lost the streak in Game 2.
” At some point, you’ll lose two consecutive games in the playoffs. It’s amazing that we haven’t lost in the playoffs in so many years. One second here, and you could say, “Hell of a job boys.” But streaks end for the most part and it ended for us tonight,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Did it knock our team out of the playoffs?” It didn’t. Do we have a hill? There’s no question. I don’t believe I’m being Captain Obvious by saying that. But I believe we have more in us. “
There were some positive things that the Lightning could learn from their Game 2 loss. It was a tighter game than the Game 1 loss of 6-2. During the second half, they got back to what makes them so effective — north-south offensive, turning defense into offense, and earning their zone time.
But that magical elasticity of rebounding from losses was not there for the Lightning and Vasilevskiy. He has conceded three goals in each of his four playoff games.
” There were some positive signs regarding the second half. There are no moral victories. Cooper stated that we still lost.
Adam Fox is elite
When it comes to young defensemen in the NHL, it’s Cale Makar‘s world and Adam Fox is just living in it, despite beating out the Colorado Avalanche wunderkind for the Norris Trophy last season. Makar is having an incredible postseason, setting scoring records for defensemen and now helping to hinder the otherworldly offense of Connor McDavid, one reason Fox’s playoff run hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.
Fox has 22 points, putting him among the Rangers’ scoring leaders. He has been a driving force behind their power play and runs an active point that keeps the unit in motion. He was averaging 26 minutes, 41 seconds per night entering Game 2. The Rangers try to trot him out for big defensive assignments, such as against Nikita Kucherov in the Eastern Conference finals, and he can handle them.
Seriously, look at this move to set up Kaapo Kakko‘s goal in Game 2: deking Jan Rutta into the Bronx before sending a perfect pass to Kakko for the tip-in. It was a memorable run for Fox. It’s not Makar’s special run, but it’s been a special one for Fox.
Brayden Point haunts the series
Since 2020, no NHL player has more postseason goals than Lightning center Brayden Point, who has 30 tallies in 53 games among his 60 points. He suffered a lower-body injury against the Maple Leafs in the Lightning’s Game 7 win, leaving after just 5: 51. They didn’t need him in their second-round sweep over the not-ready-for-prime-time Panthers. They will miss him against the Rangers.
“He is, in my opinion one of the most talented players in the league. This is not something I would say if I didn’t think so. Cooper stated that Cooper is a big-game player who can help tilt the ice. Cooper said that while we would love to have him back in a perfect world, it’s not like we haven’t won a playoff series with him. “
Point has been skating in full gear after Lightning practices, working to get back into shape and improving his skills for a possible return. Point’s return would allow the Lightning to reorganize their center position and add one of the most skilled two-way players to their roster.
” He’s still making progress. Cooper stated that they are not predicting that he will miraculously play in Game 3.
A (lopsided) goalie duel for the ages
On paper, the battle between Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin was every bit the superstar matchup as Nathan MacKinnon vs. Connor McDavid in the Western Conference finals. Vasilevskiy staked a claim for “best goalie in the world” status after back-to-back Stanley Cups, last postseason’s Conn Smythe Trophy, the 2018-19 Vezina Trophy and leading the NHL in wins for five straight seasons. Shesterkin, who was expected to win his first Vezina this year, supported the Rangers through two seven game series wins.
So Far, it’s been Shesterkin, an upstart, beating Vasilevskiy. Rangers goalie is 2-0 with an. 943 save percentage and 3. 24 goals save above expected. Lightning goalie is 0-2 and has an. 828 save percentage and minus-3. 26 goals save above expected, per Evolving Hockey data. Shesterkin stated that his Russian counterpart Vasilevskiy was the “best goalie in the world” before the series. “
Now, after two stellar games of goaltending and a sold out Madison Square Garden crowd singing, “Igor is better!” What was the difference between these wins?
“Currently, I don’t think that really matters. Shesterkin spoke through an interpreter and said that she still stands by her opinion. “Andrei is still one of the best goalies in the world. It’s important to remember that the series is limited to four wins. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.