Hello everybody! Before the Rangers squared off with the Penguins and the Capitals, I traded questions with the insightful and helpful folks that run their corresponding SB Nation blogs in an effort to bring a different perspective on each of those series to Blueshirt Banter. This time around, things are a little bit different. Why are they different? Because I genuinely like the Tampa Bay Lightning and I really like the people over at the Raw Charge.
The Lightning are young, fast, and exciting to watch. They have plenty of heart and now wear jerseys that don't make me cringe (Hey! If it's good enough for Toronto!) So the fact that the Rangers are locking horns with the Bolts in the Eastern Conference Final is pretty weird for me. I find that a developing rivalry or a deep, incessant loathing make far better fuels for an intense playoff series than fondness and mutual respect do. I'm sure sometime after the puck drops this afternoon I'll find things to strongly dislike about Tampa. For instance, I am sure they all smell like sunblock and wear sandals far too long after summer ends. Heathens.
Anyway, let's get to know the Tampa Bay Lightning through the minds of the people that have been writing about them and watching them play long before two Eastern Conference teams traded their captains after one felt betrayed and unappreciated, and one thought that he deserved a superstar's contract. I asked John Fontana and Cassie McClellan from (the?) Raw Charge five questions about the Bolts... this was really just an excuse to talk about the movie Anaconda. Remember Jon Voight? Yeah, me neither.
1. Which player on Tampa's roster is your pick for the likely series MVP? Why him?
Cassie: Brian Boyle has been the unsung hero of the regular season and playoffs. When an injury happened with either a forward or a defenseman, Boyle stepped in and took care of things. When the team needed a big hit to get them into the game, Boyle would deliver. When the team needed a goal to get them going, Boyle would find a way to get one. And none of that has changed since the playoffs started.
John: Nikita Kucherov. While Tyler Johnson has gotten the focus as being a powerhouse and Conn Smythe candidate and all that, Kucherov is 2nd on the team in points (6 goals, 5 assists) and was the guy at the end of the last series that was scoring while Johnson was watching on the side (without even earning the assists).
2. We're all going to hear plenty about how well these teams know one another for just long enough for it to drive us all insane, what lesser-known player on Tampa's roster is your pick to have a big impact despite not being a household name?
John: Good question. The guy that springs to my mind here is Valtteri Filppula. Filppula (non-household name because you struggle to pronounce it unless you're a Lightning fan or Red Wings fan) has seen time on the Bolts top line, centering Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn (this was a coach Jon Cooper attempt to jump start Stamkos, it also was how the team compensated for the loss of Ryan Callahan for game 6) as well as time on the third line. He's an offense generator who's contributions are often overlooked. He's got 6 points in the playoffs (2 goals, 4 assists) in 13 games. He's not Stamkos, he's not Tyler Johnson or Nikita Kucherov, and the media doesn't put him in the spotlight like the others, but he's someone who will get you while you're focused on the other fronts on the Bolts.
3. There was once a major motion picture that went by the name of Anaconda. In that opus of film, Ice Cube (the gentleman who spends half of his time looking indignant and furious and the other half of it driving mini-vans in family-friendly comedies) speaks his concern about gigantic jungle snakes stalking Jennifer Lopez and himself with the unforgettable line; "Is snakes out there this big?!" So, in homage to that, I ask you; "There goalies out there this big?!" Just how good is the giant named Ben Bishop and how important has he been to the Lightning in getting past the Red Wings and the Habs?
John: You had to go with Anaconda... I suppose people will find that more hip than the docile The Iron Giant*, huh? I mean, Ice Cube's line is probably more relevant to this than "I am not a gun" from Vin Diesel's voiced Giant, right? (Yeah, but it ain't nothin' compared to Hogarth's hipster-attempt "Destination: downtown Coolsville. Population: Us"... A lot less relevant than what you used but it's much hipper or dare I say it, a cheesy kind of cool. I shaddup now.).
Big Ben Bishop (for the fans who want a number: 6 foot, 7 inches) has been good in net, solid. I won't say "consistent" though as the scores of the Red Wings series will show you that's not a fact. I can't say "solid" either as the game 4 showing got him replaced. But he's been solid more times than not. The Bolts are 3-2 in one-goal games in the playoffs.
The need for him to step up and be the saving grace for the team has been in those games... The others have been either complete failings by the club or one-sided, convincing wins where Ben has to cover the bases and did so.
4. What three words would you use to describe the Tampa Bay Lightning (please don't use "electrifying" and/or "shocking")?
John: Groan inducing puns are usually my thing, but I don't tend to go that direction when I'm trying to describe the team.
Frenzied sometimes works, swarming can go along with it in describing them at the height of their offensive attack. Enduring; just when you think they're spent or they're done they lash back like it was all a ruse. Deep because, well, team depth. The thing is only 19 are going to play on most nights, but they can get contributions from any level.
Ascending is the non direct, game related one I'd use. They're growing in experience, they're learning on the fly about the playoffs, and they've been moving higher and higher in these playoffs. We'll see if the Rangers halt the climb or not.
Cassie: Fast. Triplets. TampaCuse**.
5. Can we have some of what Tyler Johnson has been eating?
John: You just made me very, very hungry. Oh, Tyler....!
Cassie: Tyler Johnson's a good Washington State boy, so it's not food that fuels him, but the sweet smell of lilacs in bloom. (Spokane is the "Lilac City".)
*= Little does John know that The Iron Giant is one of my favorite movies and if I ever meet anyone who says anything negative about the movie, I will spit in their mouth and run away.
**= Tampacuse is Tampa Bay and Syracuse combined. Syracuse is the home of the Bolts' AHL affiliate. It also may or may not be a respiratory illness, or at least that is what I think it sounds like.
So, it goes without saying that a few of the names that came up are quite familiar to us, but I'm not going to get into that because I'm anticipating that we'll all collectively lose our minds with that "story line" as the series progresses. Tampa seems to have depth (although a lot of it is young guys) in the way that I dream about the Rangers having depth. This series could very easily come down to which team's bottom six has a bigger impact.
So, here are a few of the thoughts I have going into this series.
Ben Bishop is one of those goalies that I do consider to be the real deal, but I can probably name five goalies I would rather have in net over him without blinking an eye. With that being said, he is still quite young and, in my opinion, hard to evaluate. Is Ben Bishop a good goalie? A great goalie? Is he on his way to being a great goalie? I find these questions particularly vexing after how huge of a role Braden Holtby played in the Metropolitan Division Finals. I think it is safe to say that Bishop won't outplay Lundqvist, but he doesn't have to. He only has to play well enough to give his team a chance to beat the Rangers four times in seven chances. This series might come down to how Ben Bishop fares against the New York Rangers' currently dormant offense.
We like to use words like "fast" and "swarming" here at Blueshirt Banter when we talk about the Rangers when they are on top of their game. The fact that Cassie and John used similar terms should tell us a lot about what the Rangers are in store for. The Rangers probably have two of the fastest skaters in the league on their roster, but the team speed of the Lightning is truly remarkable. There's a reason that the Lightning dismantled the Rangers in the regular season; they're really, really good... and young. I have a feeling we'll be seeing the Bolts in the postseason for the duration of the "Henrik Lundqvist window" that we so often talk about.
Can the Rangers find a way to stop Tyler Johnson, Steven Stamkos, and the speed of the Lightning? Will Henrik Lundqvist, home ice advantage, and the currently toothless offense be enough to get the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final for a second straight year? My gut tells me that the Rangers are going to need to tighten things up against Tampa Bay because of how scary their transition game is. The tradition of a few defensive zone turnovers each game (y'know, just to keep things interesting) has to stop, and the big name forwards on the Rangers' roster need to start making a big impact on the scoreboard.
The Rangers are halfway there, just 8 wins away from immortality, and as scary as Tampa is and can be... the Rangers' biggest obstacle is still themselves. If this team can play the way it played when it went on that unbelievable run with Talbot in net, it can beat any team in this league in seven games. But we might not see that team take the ice at the Garden this afternoon, we can only hope that the Rangers finally get all of the cogs in the machine turning and working together to be the powerhouse that we all know they can be.
I hope you guys enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed putting it together. Go stop over at Raw Charge for a different perspective on the ECF and some of the friendliest and most knowledgeable hockey fans I've ever had the pleasure of getting to know.
Let's go Rangers.
p.s. I know it's "Raw Charge" and not "the Raw Charge". I think. Remember when I was funny? Me neither.