05/15/15 by Matthew S. Vandriak
And then there were 4. 12 teams have exited along the road to the 2015 Stanley Cup, and the 4 teams left set up for what should be a very exciting pair of conference final matchups. Two of the NHL's "Original Six" remain in Chicago and the New York Rangers, while two of the NHL's expansion teams from the early 1990's in Anaheim and Tampa Bay will each be trying to raise the Cup for the second time. Here's a look at your 2015 Conference Finals, starting with the East.
Eastern Conference Finals: New York Rangers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
How They've Got Here:
NY defeated Pittsburgh 4 to 1 in 1st Round, defeated Washington 4 to 3 in 2nd Round
Tampa Bay defeated Detroit 4 to 3, defeated Montreal 4 to 2 in 2nd Round
The Presidents Trophy winning Rangers have kept their fans on the edge of their seats, and on the verge of heart failure so far this playoff year. All 12 of the Rangers playoff games have been decided by 1 goal. And for the second year in a row, the Blue Shirts battled back from a 3 games to 1 deficit in the 2nd round to win the series, marking the first time in NHL history to accomplish that feat. Tampa Bay had to battle back from a 3 games to 2 series deficit in their opening round series against Detroit, then jumped out to a 3 games to none lead against Montreal before finishing the Canadiens in 6 games.
The Rangers are back in the Eastern Conference finals for the 3rd time in 4 years, and are trying to become the first team since Pittsburgh and Detroit in 2008 and 2009 to reach the Stanley Cup Finals in back to back seasons. Tampa Bay is back in the semi final round for the first time since 2011. The last, and only time the Lightning reached the Stanley Cup Finals was 2004, when they defeated Calgary to win the Cup.
The experience edge may belong to the Rangers, but the young Lightning's offense has struck consistently in these playoffs. Tyler Johnson leads all playoff goal scorers with 8. His "Triplets Line" mate Nikita Kucherov is third in goal scoring with 6. Johnson is also 3rd in points with 12, while Kucherov is tied for 5th most with 11 points. After not scoring a goal in the first round against the Red Wings, Steven Stamkos came to life in the 2nd round and has netted 10 points (3G/7A) through the first two rounds. In goal, Ben Bishop has been solid, posting a 1.81 goals against average and a .931 save percentage so far.
But the edge in net definitely belongs to the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist has the best playoff goals against average (1.60) and save percentage (.944). He's also 4 and 0 in elimination games and allowed only 2 goals on 74 shots faced in the Rangers series clinching games against the Penguins and Capitals. Chris Krieder and Derick Brassard lead New York with 5 goals each. Brassard's 8 points are tied for the team lead with Derek Stepan (3G/5A). Rick Nash has added 7 points (2G/5A) while leading the Rangers in shots.
On special teams, the Rangers penalty kill has been superb, clicking at a 89.3% success rate . The Rangers held the Capitals to 1 for 15 on the power play, and Pittsburgh to 2 for 13 in the opening round. With the man advantage, New York has converted at a rate of 15.8%. Tampa Bay's power play has scored on 9 of their 47 power play chances (18%), and have an 86.7% success rate on the penalty kill, fueled by holding Montreal to just 1 power play goal on 16 tries in the 2nd round.
Familiar faces will be wearing the other teams jersey on both sides. Martin St. Louis and Dan Boyle were a big part of the Lightning's Stanley Cup run 11 years ago, both are now playing for the Rangers. While Tampa Bay's Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, and Anton Stralman all previously played for the Rangers. Callahan and St. Louis were traded for each other last season.
Injury wise, the Rangers may get Mats Zuccarello back at some point in the series. But they may be without Dan Boyle to start the series after he was knocked out of Game 7 against the Capitals after sustaining a hit to the head. The Lightning may be missing Callahan for the start of the series. Callahan missed Game 6 against Montreal after having an appendectomy.
Tampa Bay swept the season series, winning all 3 games by a combined score of 15 to 8. This is the first time these franchises have met in a playoff series. The Rangers last won the Stanley Cup in 1994, which ended a 54 year drought without a championship.
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