Which potential Conference Finals opponent is the best game for Lightning?

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TAMPA — After sweeping the Panthers to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Lightning can sit back and watch to see who their next opponent will be.

The other second-round playoff in the East, the Hurricanes and Rangers — the top two teams in the Metropolitan Division — are tied at two games apiece.

With the series guaranteed to have at least six games, the Lightning won’t play again until Monday at the earliest and potentially as late as Wednesday if the series goes seven games.

Lightning left winger Pat Maroon (14) and New York Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren (55) dropped out during a March game in Tampa. [ CHRIS O’MEARA | AP ]

“I’m watching the other games,” Lightning forward Corey Perry said ahead of Game 4 against the Panthers on Monday. “A lot of guys are. We’re hockey players, and we like to see what’s going on in the league and how everyone is doing and how the series is going.

The Lightning have again shown that the regular season is just a dress rehearsal for the playoffs and that they are at their best in the playoff spotlight.

Which potential Conference Finals opponent has the best game?

Lightning forward Nicholas Paul (20) works to play the puck against Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Tony DeAngelo (77) in front of the net defended by goaltender Antti Raanta (32) during a game at the end of March in Tampa.
Lightning forward Nicholas Paul (20) works to play the puck against Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Tony DeAngelo (77) in front of the net defended by goaltender Antti Raanta (32) during a game at the end of March in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Lightning played the Hurricanes and Rangers three times each during the regular season. Five of those games were decided by a goal and three went to overtime.

The only game that wasn’t close was the Lightning’s 4-0 loss Jan. 2 to the Rangers. The game was goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s first since returning from COVID-19 protocol, and it wasn’t the Lightning’s best defensive effort. Two goals were the result of turnovers and one hit a defender’s stick before entering the net.

The Lightning’s game rounded off as the playoffs progressed. Against the Panthers, they protected their net and the puck, and Vasilevskiy held his opponents to one goal or less in each of the last five games.

Here’s a breakdown of the Rangers and Hurricanes.

Rangers

New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad, pictured celebrating a goal against the Lightning on March 19, has four goals in three games – including a hat trick on January 2 – against Tampa Bay this season.
New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad, pictured celebrating a goal against the Lightning on March 19, has four goals in three games – including a hat trick on January 2 – against Tampa Bay this season. [ CHRIS O’MEARA | AP ]

The Rangers are like the Lightning when they went from a top-flight offensive juggernaut to a fundamentally solid team that won back-to-back Stanley Cups. New York got tougher in the offseason, getting ruthless former Lightning forward Barclay Goodrow, who suffered a lower-body injury, and enforcer Ryan Reeves.

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Both teams have elite goalkeepers. Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin, likely the Vezina Trophy winner this season, looks a lot like a young Vasilevskiy.

New York came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Pittsburgh in the first round and tied their current streak after falling 2-0.

A series with the Lightning would be physical and close, and the Lightning would need to steal at least one game from Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers have won five straight. But the Lightning have depth and experience on their side.

The difference could come down to two players who did not play all three regular season games. Rangers trade deadline pickup Andrew Copp has five goals and five assists in the playoffs. Nick Paul of the Lightning (two goals, four assists) is now the center of the first line and plays shorthanded and on the power play while averaging 18:55.

Hurricanes

The Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes mingle in a late March game in Tampa.
The Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes mingle in a late March game in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Lightning know the Hurricanes well. Due to realigned regional divisions and last season’s playoff format, Tampa Bay has faced Carolina 16 times since the start of last season.

Like the Panthers, the Hurricanes create opportunities for turnovers. Unlike Florida, which likes to do it with speed, Carolina creates turnovers with pressure. The Lightning compared the Hurricanes’ style at 60 minutes against an all-court press.

The Hurricanes are playing extremely well at home and their “Caniacs” are creating a home advantage in the playoffs. They are undefeated at home in the playoffs and 14-3 at home in their last 17 playoff games at the PNC Arena.

Those three losses were to the Lightning in the second round last season. Tampa Bay won the series in five games, largely because they were able to take away Carolina’s home advantage.

Ultimately, given the Lightning’s knowledge and success against the Hurricanes, Carolina would seem like the better match. The Rangers seem a bit too much like the Lightning. But if Tampa Bay keeps playing defense, blocking shots and protecting the puck, it’s going to be a tough game for any team.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected]. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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