NHL Playoffs: Eastern Conference Finals Preview & Predictions

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    Eastern Conference: Final Season Standings with Futures Market

    SeedTeamRecordPointsTo Win East
    R1 / R2
    To Win Cup
    R1 / R2
    A1Florida Panthers58-18-6122+250 / +165+500 / +360
    A2Toronto Maple Leafs54-21-7115+500+1000
    A3Tampa Bay Lightning51-23-8110+500 (R1)
    +300 (R2)
    -190 (R3)
    +1100 (R1)
    +650 (R2)
    +230 (R3)
    M1Carolina Hurricanes54-20-8116+500 / +230+1000 / +600
    M2New York Rangers52-24-6110+1000 (R1)
    +600 (R2)
    +160 (R3)
    +1700 (R1)
    +1300 (R2)
    +500 (R3)
    M3Pittsburgh Penguins46-25-11103+900+2000
    WC1Boston Bruins51-26-5107+850+1800
    WC2Washington Capitals44-26-12100+1600+3000

    A3 Tampa Bay Lightning vs. M2 New York Rangers
    Series Odds: Lightning -190 / Rangers +160
    Game 1: 8:00pm EST – Wednesday, 6/1 (@NYR)
    Key Injuries:
    – F Brayden Point (TB) sustained a lower-body injury in Game 7 of Round 1 and missed all of Round 2. He was not present at practice on Sunday so his availability remains a big question mark for this series. Early reports suggest he’ll miss at least 2 games.

    Regular Season Meetings (New York 3-0)
    December 31 – New York W 4-3 SO on the road
    January 2 – New York W 4-0 at home
    March 19 – New York W 2-1 on the road

    NHL Playoffs: Team Stats Leaders
    Points (Goals / Assists)
    19 – NYR Mika Zibanejad (3rd) – 7G / 12A (14GP)
    18 – NYR Adam Fox (4th) – 5G / 13A (14GP)
    15 – TBL Nikita Kucherov (T5) – 4G / 11A (11GP)
    TBL Andrei Vasilevskiy – 2.22 GAA (3rd) / .932 Sv% (3rd)
    NYR Igor Shesterkin – 2.68 GAA (7th) / .928 Sv% (4th)

    Series Outlook: Playoff Hockey! Gone are the Top 3 seeds in the East (FLA, CAR, TOR) and in are the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers who tied at 110 points in the regular season but the Rangers won the tiebreaker with more regulation wins. Their odds to win the East before the playoffs started were Tampa +500 and New York +1000, but here we are with one of the best goaltending matchups in recent memory with Andrei Vasilevskiy (TBL) & Igor Shesterkin (NYR).

    If you forgot about the Lightning we can’t blame you — they haven’t suited up since Monday, May 23rd after sweeping the President’s Cup Trophy winning Florida Panthers in dominant fashion (13-3 goal aggregate). Most analysts wrote Tampa off when key centerman Brayden Point was ruled out of the series after sustaining a lower-body injury in Game 7 of Round 1. Nikita Kucherov (7 points) and 37-year old vet Corey Perry (3 goals) took over on offense helping to negate the absence of Point but the series MVP goes to netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy. In one of the more impressive 4-game playoff stretches of all time, Vasy saved 98.1% of shots faced with a 0.75 GAA, shutting down the NHLs leading regular season scoring team (337 goals – 4.11 per game). He completed the Game 4 sweep with 49 saves, a new NHL record for a playoff shutout regulation win.

    For the Rangers, Igor Shesterkin was arguably just as impressive between the pipes for different reasons, 7 games of resilience. New York found themselves down 2-0 and 3-2 in the series facing elimination twice (all 3 loses were close). Shesterkin didn’t allow more than 2 goals through Games 1-4, and finished with the 2nd best stats behind Vasy with a 1.72 GAA / .949 Sv% finally proving to everyone in the playoffs why he’s the heavy favorite to win the Vezina at the NHL Awards in June. It was a back and forth ‘home team wins series’ between New York & Carolina before the Rangers handed the Canes their first home loss in these playoffs (this is a pointless stat but they were also a perfect 6-0 in Game 7s since relocating in 2006). On the back of Shesterkin, Mika Zibanejad & Adam Fox led the way with 8 points but also got great production from Filip Chytil matching Zibanejad’s 4 goals in the series. The big difference maker for the Rangers though is gritty team effort with big hits and blocked shots, frustrating opponents. They’re led by enforcer Jacob Trouba with 54 hits (T2) through the playoffs and 177 blocked shots (2nd) during the regular season. New York has 3 of the Top 5 playoffs blocked shot leaders with Fox (31), Ryan Lindgren (30), and Trouba (30) — most total by a team in the NHL.

    Regular Season Roundup: Tampa Bay was led by Steven Stamkos (42 regular season goals) and had 5 other goal scorers eclipse 20 (Point, Alex Killorn, Kucherov, Ross Colton, & Victor Hedman). Vasilevskiy was a Vezina candidate with the 2nd most goalie wins behind Top-10s in GAA & Sv%. Tampa was T7 with 3.48 goals-per-game (GPG). In net for the Rangers is Vezina favorite Shesterkin who led the NHL in GAA (2.07) and Sv% (.935). Already mentioned but New York is scrappy on defense — they block shots (9th most), kill penalties (8th best %), and also execute well on power plays (4th best %). LW Artemi Panarin is one of the best facilitators in the game with 74 assists (T3), feeding team team goal scoring leader Chris Kreider (52) along with Mika Zibanejad (29).

    Regular Season Matchup Analysis: It’s a little bit of a weird sample size (although Rangers fans would disagree since they won all 3, but 2 were played early in the season on New Years Eve and again 2 nights later. The 3rd and final matchup on March 19th is the best preview we have, but let’s get into details below.
    Game 1 – On New Years Eve the Eastern Conference leading Tampa Bay Lightning (21-7-4 – 46 pts) hosted the New York Rangers (19-8-4 – 42 pts) after playing the previous night in the Panthers barn — a quick 1-hour flight but still travel. Tampa was without Vasilevskiy (Brian Elliot started in net) and Nikita Kucherov but the game still required a shootout to settle (none of those in the playoffs!). It was truly an even battle; after the Lightning jumped out to the early lead off a Steven Stamkos power-play goal, the Rangers came back to take the lead, forcing Tampa to tie it up twice at 2-2 and 3-3. Ultimately Zibanejad had the winning tuck in the shootout after 3 straight saves for Shesterkin.

    Game 2 – A couple nights later the teams met back up at Madison Square Garden as the Lightning welcomed a return from Vasilevskiy who hadn’t played since December 21st, perhaps a little rusty, but would go on to win 6 of 7 after this loss to New York. It was a classic strange hockey game but Zibanejad and Shesterkin shined bright. Mika had a natural hat trick and Igor turned in a 38-save shutout. That’s 38 saves on 38 shots for Shesterkin but 4 goals from the Rangers on just 21 shots against Vasy, that’s hockey sometimes. The game was really decided by power-play execution in favor of the Rangers with a pair of 1st period goals by Zibanejad to go up 2-0 early. They say a 2-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey, but if you give Vasilevskiy or Shesterkin a 2-goal lead, especially at home, good luck coming back even with the ice tilted on nearly double the number of shots.

    Game 3 – Here we go — both teams clash again for a final time deep into the regular season on March 19th with near identical current playoff lineups (minus Point for Tampa). At this stage in the season since the calendar turned, Tampa and New York were playing some of the best hockey in the Eastern Conference, matching point for point with dominant home records. Tampa was 39-15-6, New York 38-18-5 overall. Everything about this game was even, from shots to hits to total penalties. Again though it was the Rangers power-play execution late in the game that was the difference; Zibanejad scored the game winner with 16-seconds left. Both teams were a bit sloppy overall as 13 penalties were handed out for 32 total minutes; I’d expect things to be a bit more buttoned up in this series. A single goal was scored each period in this 2-1 win by NY, in the 1st by Point (who will be missed), then tied in the 2nd by Trouba, and ultimately that winner by Mika in the 3rd. Shesterkin and Vasilevskiy were the stars of the game, combining for 53 saves on 56 shots.

    Final Word: The key for this series will no doubt be goaltending but so will staying out of the box, keeping it 5-on-5, not making either goalie work any harder than necessary. During their regular season series, each game was heavily tilted by power-play goals (6 of 14 were scored that way, 4 by the Rangers). I’d be shocked if any game total line was more than 5.5 and at even strength for 60 minutes, that easily favors the under. New York has the 2nd best power-play percentage in these playoffs (TB is 8th) and was 4th best during the regular season (TB was 8th). Also don’t forget that New York has home ice and has not lost at MSG since that crazy 3OT Game 1 of Round 1 vs. the Penguins when Shesterkin had 79 saves.

    Series Predictions

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