The best possible conference finals? Why Rangers-Lightning, Avs-Oilers demand your attention

The best possible conference finals? Why Rangers-Lightning, Avs-Oilers demand your attention thumbnail

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  • Kristen Shilton

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    ESPN NHL reporter

      Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.
  • Greg Wyshynski

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    ESPN

      Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.

The conference final round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs is upon us. Sixteen teams entered the postseason tournament, but only four are left in the bracket, as the New York Rangers will take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the East, and the Colorado Avalanche will square off against the Edmonton Oilers in the West. To get you up-to-speed before Game 1 of Tuesday’s West matchup, we have a megapreview. We break down each team in five categories and offer our predictions for which teams will advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

Note: Kristen Shilton previewed the Western Conference teams, while Greg Wyshynski previewed the two clubs from the East.

Jump to:
NYR | TB
COL | EDM

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New York Rangers

How they got here: Defeated Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3, defeated Carolina Hurricanes 4-3.

Goalie confidence rating: 10

The Igor Shesterkin that we saw during Round 1 is not the Igor Shesterkin that the Lightning are going to see. He was pulled twice during the Rangers’ first two Pittsburgh games. He tried to get over his emotions. He battled back and won a Game 7. Against Carolina, Shesterkin gave up two or fewer goals in six of the seven games in the series and won another Game 7, this time on the road. He is their last line of defense as well as their catalyst. Rangers are able to take his performances into consideration when they tip the ice.

Defenseman Adam Fox said he’s looking forward to the battle between Andrei Vasilevskiy and Shesterkin. “Obviously, Vasilevskiy’s track record speaks for itself. But I believe Shesty also has one. He’s been amazing this year. Two great goalies coming together. He said, “But I have a lot faith in Shesty.”

What we’ve learned about this team so far in the postseason

The Rangers had their share of breaks. Defenseman Jacob Trouba‘s booming hits took out Penguins star Sidney Crosby for two critical games, and then Hurricanes forward Seth Jarvis in Game 7. The Rangers didn’t have to face Penguins starter Tristan Jarry until Game 7; instead, they saw backup Casey DeSmith for five and a half periods and then third-stringer Louis Domingue for just over six games. The Rangers didn’t have to face Hurricanes starter Frederik Andersen, who missed the playoffs with a lower-body injury; instead, they saw Antti Raanta for six games and half of Game 7 until his injury, and then third-stringer Pyotr Kochetkov. But breaks can only be capitalized on, and the Rangers have displayed remarkable resilience. After being down 3-1 in the first round series, they rallied to beat Penguins. They overcame a series deficit of 2-0 and 3-2 to defeat the Hurricanes. “I used to refer to us as cockroaches. We didn’t leave. This has been a core part of every team I’ve ever been on. We don’t let the score or the place in the game define us. We just keep on trying to find our game and playing for each other,” said forward Chris Kreider.

The Rangers are still not a strong five-on-five team. They rely on Shesterkin to save them at any strength. Carolina was able to see the Rangers’ power play. They have depth at forward, and are receiving excellent play from defensemen such as Fox and Trouba. Coach Gerard Gallant is pushing all the right buttons regarding line combinations.

Player(s) who will be key to the series

Obviously, the Rangers are going to go as far as Shesterkin takes them. But the players and Gallant all said that their Game 7 win at the Hurricanes was indicative of what a quintessential effort from the Rangers looks like, getting points from 12 different players.

Mika Zibanejad led the way with three points. Kreider had two goals, after scoring 52 during the regular season. They’ll need continued offense from Fox, who had 18 points in 14 games. But it’ll also take continued contributions from players like Andrew Copp (12 points), Ryan Strome (9) and Frank Vatrano (8); and further damage done by the Rangers’ “Kid Line” of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko.

Player who needs to step up

Artemi Panarin quietly had points in the last three games against Carolina, including a great outlet pass that sprung Strome for a critical goal that put them up 3-0. The Rangers’ star has had only two signature playoff games: a three point night against the Penguins and an overtime power play goal in Game 7. They could use more of him, especially at five on five.

How will the Rangers handle Nikita Kucherov?

No disrespect intended to Sebastian Aho, but the Rangers didn’t have to face an elite offensive player like Kucherov in their series against the Hurricanes. The last time they did was in the first round, when Crosby’s line ran roughshod over them (Crosby had 10 points in six games) — until a Trouba hit cost No. 87 a game and a half. Kucherov has 15 points in 11 games, including seven on the power play. The series will hinge on how they defend Kucherov’s line.


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Tampa Bay Lightning

How they got here: Defeated Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3, defeated Florida Panthers 4-0.

Goalie confidence rating: 10

Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the greatest postseason goaltenders in NHL history. His career save percentage is. 925 career playoff save percentage ties him for third all time (minimum 60 games) with Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek, among others. He’s 8-3 this postseason with a. 932 save percentage and has 6. 76 goals saved above average to lead all goalies still playing in the postseason. This was against two of the best offensive teams in regular season.

The Big Cat’s run since 2020 in elimination games is the stuff of legend: 10-0, six of the wins by shutout. He is an integral part of their success.

What we’ve learned about this team so far in the postseason

There’s a lot we already knew about the Lightning after back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, from their ability to win in a variety of ways to their efficiency in elimination games. The playoffs have revealed some interesting aspects about this Lightning team.

For example, we’ve learned that they’ve effectively rebuilt their bottom six after the offseason exodus of their celebrated checking line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. Center Ross Colton, who scored the only goal in their Cup-clinching game last summer against the Canadiens, has played the majority of his minutes with Brandon Hagel, whom the Lightning acquired from Chicago at the trade deadline. They’ve spent time with fellow deadline pickup Nick Paul, formerly of the Ottawa Senators, but really clicked with veteran winger Corey Perry in the Florida series. The Lightning have five goals from Perry and Colton, the latter of which was acquired as a free agent in the summer. Returning contributors Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat can play up or down the lineup with effectiveness. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, in his first season with the Lightning, and playoff hero Pat Maroon also bolster the bottom six. We’ve learned that fatigue has not been an issue for a team who’s won two straight postseasons. Perhaps because they had to follow shortened regular seasons. We also learned that the Bolts have not been fat or happy after winning two straight Stanley Cups. The Bolts still have the hunger to win another and the desire to win.

Player(s) that will be key to the series

Nikita Kucherov leads the Lightning with 15 points in 11 games. Kucherov is considered the best power-play player in the NHL. He has seven points with the man advantage. Their second-leading scorer is defenseman Victor Hedman, who is doing as Victor Hedman does: He has 10 points in 11 games and is skating 25: 03 per game.

Center Steven Stamkos (eight points) and defenseman Ryan McDonagh have been there in big moments. Center Anthony Cirelli has two points in 11 games but has provided what the Lightning need in the middle after Brayden Point‘s injury.

Player who needs to step up

The Lightning have a couple of players they’d like to see produce a little more, but their lack of production is injury-related in both cases. The Lightning would love to see Point back on ice. Coach Jon Cooper says his standout center — the team’s leading goal-scorer (30) over the past two postseasons — is progressing from a lower-body injury he suffered in Game 7 against the Maple Leafs. He had four points in seven of his previous games.

Hagel stepped on a puck in Game 2 against Panthers. He was present in Games 3 and 4. Although he hadn’t been practicing, he is expected to play in the Eastern Conference finals. Hagel has performed well in the roles they have given him during the playoffs. That said, they’d like more than one goal off 18 shot attempts in 11 games from a player who had 25 goals in the regular season.

What will be the key to solving Igor Shesterkin?

The Rangers goalie has been their best player through the first two rounds — heck, he has even chipped in three assists on top of his stellar goaltending. He’s not unbeatable. He has yet to win a shutout, even though he has improved as the playoffs continue.

The Hurricanes were able to score eight high-danger goals against Rangers goaltenders, which was the second-most allowed in round 2. Some of those goals were scored on odd-man rushes and others on opportunities on the doorstep. Carolina caused chaos in Shesterkin’s crease at times, but couldn’t find any rebounds. To beat “Shesty”, the Lightning will need to convert some of those. “

As Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said: Their problem offensively was not having elite goal-scorers. The Lightning doesn’t have such a problem.


Prediction for the series: Rangers in seven

Tampa Bay is better 5-on-5. Their power play will do some damage. If the Rangers keep the pace controlled, they won’t let up. New York can trade chances with the Lightning if they want to do so against the Hurricanes at MSG. The Lightning have finishers that will make them pay in a way the Hurricanes couldn’t. The Lightning can also win these if New York wants this to become a 1-0 goalie duels. Their advantage is bolstered by a healthy Brayden Point. They’re clearly winning this series.

The Rangers were out of the first round on paper. Yet, here we are. It’s possible to say that the Rangers have not faced a goalie such as Vasilevskiy. It’s also true that Lightning haven’t faced Shesterkin, who is playing with his gourd right at the moment. The Rangers are spending house money. They are not the Maple Leafs and Panthers, crushed under the weight of entitlements and expectations. They are finding ways to win, ways to survive, and I believe they will do it again here.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are where teams challenge the numbers, find an undeniable belief and create – for want of a better word – postseason magic. I think we are there with the Rangers.


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Colorado Avalanche

How they got here: Defeated Nashville Predators 4-0, defeated St. Louis Blues 4-2.

Goalie confidence rating: 7.5/10

Darcy Kuemper has been solid if unspectacular in the playoffs, posting a 6-2-0 record, . 904 save percentage and 2. 44 goals-against average.

Granted, Nashville’s Ryan Johansen did (accidentally) injure Kuemper’s eye in the first round, but the goalie recovered and Colorado swept the Predators in time for Kuemper to return in the second round against St. Louis. Kuemper won that series when the Avalanche needed him, but there was not much rhythm to his game. Kuemper hasn’t had to face a lot of shots. In over 500 minutes of game action this postseason, Kuemper has faced only 218 pucks. This is the lowest number of goalies left in the playoffs. The Blues averaged just 26 shots per game at Kuemper, while Colorado was in control averaging 37 shots the other way. Kuemper didn’t look sharp when he was tested. St. Louis caught him in poor positioning and decidedly flatfooted on several occasions. Does this indicate a problem in Kuemper’s game or a weakness? Was it an indication of the Blues’ inconsistent approach? The answer to this question should be obvious early on against Edmonton. The Oilers peppered Calgary’s Jacob Markstrom with over 34 shots per game in the second round and their elite talent up front (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Evander Kane, etc.) The Oilers will be back in full force. Kuemper’s terrific regular season (37-12-4, . 921 SV%, 2. 54 GAA) suggests he’s up to the task of what’s ahead though — even if his playoff resume to date isn’t so dazzling.

What we’ve learned about this team so far in the postseason

We don’t roll out the term “juggernaut” for just anyone around here.

Colorado was every bit as good and as possible. The notion that the Avs’ slide from the regular season (losing six out of seven games) was a sign of poor playoff performance was false. Colorado is multifaceted and capable of beating its rivals in many ways. The Avalanche have shown a remarkable level of top-end talent in the postseason. But it is the balanced depth that has really stood out to them.

Other than Nathan MacKinnon going off in Game 5 against St. Louis, and Cale Makar just being generally excellent at every turn, it’s not as if Colorado has required its superstars to carry the day. Seven Avs skaters have scored at least three goals in the playoffs. Five have reached double-digit points totals. Colorado has allowed the third-lowest number of goals per game (2. 70) among remaining playoff teams, and its power play is operating at a crisp 34.5% (best in show throughout the postseason). The Avalanche are performing as they should, scoring timely goals and playing to the strengths that they have. Colorado’s penalty kill (only 73.1%) and goaltending (see above) have underwhelmed, and would be the most likely potential issues against Edmonton. We’ve seen Colorado at its best in the playoffs.

Players who will be key to the series

All eyes will be on Makar and MacKinnon. The Avs’ Norris Trophy finalist defenseman projects that Edmonton will draw the most difficult matchups. As the Oilers showed against Calgary, it is hard to contain. How well Colorado’s back end — led by Makar, Devon Toews and Bowen Byram — can manage those assignments will go a long way in determining the series.

Meanwhile, MacKinnon will be leading the charge up front. If his Game 5 hat trick against the Blues was any indication, “Playoff Nate” is ready to dance toe-to-toe with McDavid & Co. MacKinnon already has eight goals and 13 points in 10 games. Even though offense can sometimes become less effective as we move into postseason play it doesn’t mean it won’t be here. MacKinnon’s contributions to the Avs will be huge.

Player who needs to step up

We’ve already discussed Kuemper. Let’s key on Mikko Rantanen.

Colorado’s big winger has one goal in these playoffs, which he scored on an empty net in the Avs’ 6-3 victory over St. Louis in Game 4. He has added 10 assists to his point total, but Rantanen has still fallen short of expectations to date in terms of output. Rantanen’s 36 goals led Colorado in the regular season, so seeing him hesitate to shoot the puck and fail to drive play like a $9. 25 million-per-year player should in the postseason is odd.

To keep up with Edmonton,The Avalanche needs all hands. Their stars kept improving and were crucial difference-makers in critical moments. Rantanen must be exactly what Colorado needs in the series ahead.

How do the Avs slow down the McDavid-Draisaitl-Kane line?

Never let them have the puck. Like, ever.

If only it was that easy.

Edmonton’s top line is stacked, it’s slippery and it’s been operating at an incredibly high level. Good neutral-zone play is key to keeping those three in check. This will limit their speed and force them to play to the outside. Calgary was unable to get the best looks for that unit, which turned into series-defining mistakes. Colorado must frustrate the Oilers’ top skating team and make it difficult for them find space and to get into a rhythm. The Oilers’ top three skaters will be confident going into the series. Colorado can send a message by staying on top and challenging the top line’s speed in middle of the ice.


edm

Edmonton Oilers

How they got here: Defeated Los Angeles Kings 4-3, defeated Calgary Flames 4-1.

Goalie confidence rating: 8/10

The legend of Mike Smith has only grown this postseason.

He’s a 40-year-old veteran churning out great numbers, including an 8-3-0 record, . 927 SV% and 2. 70 GAA. If you just ignore the three goals he gave up in the first six minutes of Game 1 against Calgary, and also put aside that he allowed a 132-foot clearing attempt past the posts in Game 4, then Smith has been unequivocally rock solid for the Oilers.

Unlike Darcy Kuemper, who has faced the fewest shots among remaining playoff goaltenders, Smith has been peppered with the second-most. Smith has been able to thrive under pressure and it is clear that he enjoys being involved in this level of play. That bodes well for Edmonton in this series, since Colorado happens to be a high-volume shot team (39.8 per game); if that continues, Smith will be back under a spotlight early and often in the next round.

What we’ve learned about this team so far in the postseason

The Oilers are more resilient than some observers previously thought. When Jonathan Quick repeatedly slammed the door in the first-round series, Edmonton didn’t panic. The Oilers embraced playing good defense and stayed firm to their plan until they beat Quick. With a quick 3-0 Edmonton deficit in Game 1 and another 2-0 hole to begin Game 2, the second round against Calgary couldn’t have been worse. The Oilers were calm and focused again. This group has shown leadership at every moment when past Oilers’ teams had misstepped. Another thing we have seen from Edmonton is a genuine commitment to the defensive side. There was never any doubt that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could score in the regular season, but the playoffs have brought their challenges in keeping up that pace offensively. Because of their strong defensive habits, this postseason has been very different. It starts in their own ends and is maintained down low. McDavid’s game has seen an increase in physicality. The forecheck has seen more effort.

All of these little things add up when they get to the top of the lineup. 4024839

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Barry Melrose examines the Western Conference finals and shares why he likes the Avalanche to reach the Stanley Cup finals.

Player who will be key to the series

If Cale Makar is the flashy rising star leading Colorado’s blue line, Duncan Keith is the veteran grandmaster stabilizing Edmonton’s back end.

Keith is a veteran grandmaster who has played on every major stage of hockey. He knows when to push back and when to pull away. He relieves pressure at Edmonton’s end, makes smart moves up the ice, and is a natural leader. However, there’s no doubt Keith is a “big voice” within the Oilers’ room. According to teammates, While Colorado will be trying to set the tone offensively, Keith will be the one to keep Edmonton on the right track.

Keith did that for the Oilers against Calgary, steering them out of a potential loss in Game 2 and picking up some of the responsibilities for the not-100% healthy Darnell Nurse. Keith is known for his ability to bring consistency to Edmonton’s defensive efforts. They will need all of Keith’s experience and ability to slow down the Avalanche.

Player who needs to step up

You could put Nurse here, and say he hasn’t been an obvious difference-maker for the Oilers (to the degree a top-pairing defender usually is). But the defenseman is battling a core muscle injury and he’s still playing over 21 minutes per game, so faulting him too harshly for not performing at his most elite would be misguided. Jay Woodcroft, Oilers coach, has been focusing on the same eight forwards and limiting his use of his fourth-liners. So if there’s room for improvement anywhere, it’s from some of the Oilers’ second- and third-line skaters like Warren Foegele, Ryan McLeod, Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi. Although each player had some strong stretches in Calgary, the four players have only scored five goals in the playoffs. In other series in the league, we’ve seen how important it is to score timely goals from often unheralded and unexpected players. The Oilers haven’t had a lot of that; most of their key scores have come from the same four or five guys.

Each team’s top talents could be canceled out in this series against Colorado. This is where depth will be key. The Oilers will want their depth to be on point.

Which powerhouse top line has the edge?

Are we focusing heavily on the best players in this series? Yes. Do you blame us? We can’t blame them.

This Western Conference finals present a hockey feast for the eyes: Colorado’s top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Valeri Nichushkin vs. Kane, McDavid and Draisaitl. Oh, baby.

Edmonton’s trio has combined for 26 goals and 67 points in 12 games. Colorado’s big three has produced 17 goals and 31 points in 10 games. These two teams went through two second-round series that were very different. The Oilers had a five-game spread against Calgary that was goal-scoring and the Avalanche played six against St. Louis in a more defensive-conscious, bruising affair. This series is expected to trend more in the direction of Edmonton’s recent experience, with the potential to generate offense and larger momentum swings. If that’s true, who will be the top line? Colorado’s will have less pressure to produce given their second unit is anchored by a guy named Nazem Kadri, who’s coming off an 87-point regular season and is averaging a point per game in the playoffs. Don’t underestimate McDavid and MacKinnon’s drive to show off their skills here. In the lead-up of Game 1, their head-to-head matchup is going to be a major talking point. Both players stood out in the second round, McDavid with his Game 5 hat-trick and MacKinnon with the overtime win in his Game 5. Both are firing on all cylinders.

Edmonton holds the edge. McDavid is still a great player, but Draisaitl could be even better. Draisaitl is unmatched in his playmaking ability, and it’s difficult to imagine how Colorado can contain his skill with the puck when he’s on a roll. Kane already had two hat tricks in playoffs. Not bad.

We know that the real winners are those who watch the action unfold.


Prediction for the series: Colorado in seven

All things being equal, Colorado boasts the deeper team. Its defense has been a little better than Edmonton’s (giving up a playoff-low 27 shots against per game versus the Oilers’ 37.5) and its depth is impressive. While Mike Smith has been a great player for Edmonton in the playoffs without question, we haven’t seen the best from Kuemper yet. The Avalanche will have an edge if he does win this series. It will be close, but Colorado is my favorite.

My other prediction for this series is? Special teams will play a key role. The Avalanche have an excellent power play (34.5%) but weaker penalty kill (73.1%). The Oilers are more balanced (28.1% on the power play, 85.4% on the kill). Calgary was unable to stop Edmonton’s attack on the penalty kill. Edmonton did a great job. If Edmonton can do this again in the conference finals, Colorado will be severely impeded and possibly derailed from its march to the Cup finals.

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