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Lightning vs Rangers: Playoff Preview By The Numbers

Much has changed since New York and Tampa Bay squared off in the Eastern Conference Finals seven years ago, but they find themselves in each other’s way with a Stanley Cup Finals berth on the line once again

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Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Rangers Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

New York’s rebuild has come full circle. After a soul crushing home defeat in Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals, the Rangers’ previous window of championship contention was slammed shut. Although the team qualified for the playoffs the following two seasons and even won a playoff round in 2017, the slow deterioration of a team that had made three Conference Finals appearances and a run to the Stanley Cup Finals in a four year stretch was drastically accelerated by the Tampa Bay Lightning seven years ago.

The captain of those Rangers now plays for the Lightning. Henrik Lundqvist has moved from the blue paint of the goaltender’s crease to the studios of MSG Networks, his #30 hanging from the rafters of the world’s most famous arena. Chris Kreider, then a younger player in a room full of grizzled veterans, is the only Ranger still with the team, emerging as the de facto captain of a team yet to name one in the four plus years since McDonagh was traded to Tampa Bay.

Although the Lightning went on to lose in the Cup Finals following their victory over the Rangers, they’ve found success in the following years. The back-to-back defending champions enter this series having vanquished their last ten playoff opponents, a feat accomplished by nobody since the New York Islanders’ dynasty of 19 consecutive playoff series victories.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Rangers - Game Seven
Ryan McDonagh was the leader for the Blueshirts on and off the ice during their previous playoff clash with the Lightning. This time around, McDonagh will be on the opposing bench
Getty Images

The team battled back from a 3-2 series deficit in the opening round against the Toronto Maple Leafs before sweeping the Presidents Trophy winning Florida Panthers in the Atlantic Division finals. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was otherworldly in that series, stopping 151 out of Florida’s 154 shots over the four games, 49 of which came in a shutout in the decisive Game 4.

An injury to star forward Brayden Point presented the Lightning with an interesting conundrum heading into the second round. Rather than test their forward depth and insert their next man up, (likely Riley Nash, a forward Tampa claimed off waivers earlier in the season, lost to waivers later on, and then re-acquired at the trade deadline) the Lightning opted for an eleven forward, seven defenseman lineup throughout their series against the Panthers.

Playoff experience is on Tampa’s side, but the inexperienced Rangers have already defeated a pair of battle tested teams in Pittsburgh and Carolina. Both New York and Tampa Bay finished with 110 standings points, but the Blueshirts hold the edge in regulation wins and thus have home ice advantage. That standings tie is due in large part to the Blueshirts sweeping the regular season series against the Lightning, winning once in a shootout and twice in regulation to earn a 3-0-0 record to Tampa’s 0-2-1 mark. Those were only three out of the 82 games these teams played during the season, so let’s take a look at all of those games:

Data via Evolving Hockey
Evolving Hockey

Compared to the squads that rolled through the 2020 and 2021 playoffs with a 32-13 record, this Lightning squad is not the juggernaut that previous iterations of the team were. The team made similar moves to ones of deadlines past, with Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul being this year’s Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow additions. The team’s performance was statistically very similar pre and post trade deadline, a trend that differs from both Pittsburgh and Carolina.

The special teams battle will once again be a focal point, and the angle to take on this one is similar to the Pittsburgh series. New York’s power play and penalty killing units both outperformed their Tampa Bay counterparts, but the Lightning had a stronger penalty differential throughout the season. Although the difference isn’t nearly as stark as it was between New York and Pittsburgh, the Blueshirts will still need to avoid getting themselves into trouble. Tampa’s penalty kill went 12/13 against Florida and has gone 36/41 overall in the playoffs. The Rangers’ power play has found the net seven times in the last five games, and that’ll be a crucial battle in this series.

Much has been made of the goaltenders the Rangers have had to face in order to reach the conference finals. Tristan Jarry missed all but Game 7 in the opening round for Pittsburgh, and Frederik Andersen missed the entirety of the second round for Carolina. Antti Raanta played well for the first five games of the series before giving up some questionable goals in Game 6 for the Hurricanes and getting pulled. Raanta was pulled once again in Game 7, but that was due to a lower body injury that thrust rookie Pyotr Kochetkov into action where he ceded three more goals.

As previously mentioned, Lightning starter Andrei Vasilevskiy is healthy and playing out of his mind as of late. The matchup between Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkin is one that will pit the two best goalies in the world against each other. Tampa’s sweep of Florida might make you think that the ice was tilted against Florida the whole time, but it was much more a story of Florida’s power play struggles and inability to solve Vasilevskiy than anything else:

In spite of being a significantly weaker team than Carolina on paper, Draft Kings has the Lightning as only a slightly smaller favorite than the Hurricanes were at -190, with the two time defending champions checking in at -175. As far as other statistical models, there appears to be more variation among them than either of New York’s previous series.

Moneypuck has Tampa Bay at 67.2% to defeat the Rangers and advance to the Finals. Given that they had the Lightning as approximately 2:1 underdogs against both Toronto and Florida, we can draw the conclusion that the figure in this series has more to do with their models being very low on the Blueshirts rather than high on the Lightning. The model put out by Shayna Goldman and Dom Luszczyszyn at The Athletic (paywall) paint a similar picture, as they give the Lightning a 65% chance to win the series.

Not all the models see the Rangers getting ready to charge into a Lightning buzzsaw, however. Micah Blake McCurdy of Hockey Viz is one of the few members of the analytical sphere of hockey that sees the Rangers as favorites, ever so slight as that distinction may be:

The Rangers have bucked the norms of most predictions and analysis so far. Strong special teams and elite goaltending have made up for less than stellar even strength play to bring them back to the Eastern Conference Finals. In a season most pundits and fans alike expected to end at the hands of the Hurricanes, the Blueshirts have emerged as the sole survivor of the Metropolitan Division. Avenging their defeat from seven years ago wouldn’t be the ultimate prize, but it would be sweet nonetheless. Will it happen? We’ll begin to find out when the puck drops tonight at Madison Square Garden for Game 1.

Prediction: Lightning over Rangers in 6 Games

All data via Evolving Hockey