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Which potential conference final opponent is best matchup for Lightning?

Tampa Bay will face either the Carolina Hurricanes or New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference final.
Lightning forward Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates his overtime goal during a victory over the Hurricanes in late March at Amalie Arena. Watching from the back are Carolina center Vincent Trocheck (16) and Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86).
Lightning forward Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates his overtime goal during a victory over the Hurricanes in late March at Amalie Arena. Watching from the back are Carolina center Vincent Trocheck (16) and Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86). [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 25|Updated May 25

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

The other second-round playoff series 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 go 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 a full seven.

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

“I’m watching the other games,” Lightning forward Corey Perry said before 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 around the league and how everybody else is doing and know where the series are at.”

The Lightning have shown again that the regular season is merely a dress rehearsal for the playoffs and they are at their best under the postseason spotlight.

Which potential conference final opponent presents the best matchup?

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 in late 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 in late 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 one goal, and three went to overtime.

The one game that wasn’t tight was the Lightning’s 4-0 loss Jan. 2 at the Rangers. The game was goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s first since returning from the COVID-19 protocol, and it wasn’t the Lightning’s finest defensive effort. Two goals were a result of turnovers, and one hit off a defenseman’s stick before going into the net.

The Lightning’s game has been rounding into form as the postseason has progressed. Against the Panthers, they protected their net and the puck, and Vasilevskiy has held opponents to one goal or fewer in each of the past 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 Jan. 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 Jan. 2 — against Tampa Bay this season. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

The Rangers resemble the Lightning when they were transitioning from a high-flying offensive juggernaut to the fundamentally sound squad that has won two straight Stanley Cups. New York became tougher in the offseason, getting hard-nosed former Lightning forward Barclay Goodrow, who had been out with a lower-body injury, and enforcer Ryan Reeves.

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

New York came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Pittsburgh in the first round and has evened its current series after falling behind 2-0.

A series with the Lightning would be a physical and tight, and the Lightning would have to steal at least a game at 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 didn’t play in the three regular-season meetings. Rangers trade-deadline pickup Andrew Copp has five goals and five assists in the playoffs. The Lightning’s Nick Paul (two goals, four assists) is now the top-line center and playing on the penalty kill and power play while playing an average of 18:55.

Hurricanes

The Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes mix it up during a game in late March in Tampa.
The Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes mix it up during a game in late March in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Lightning know the Hurricanes well. Because of last season’s regionally realigned divisions and playoff format, Tampa Bay has played Carolina 16 times since the beginning of last season.

Like the Panthers, the Hurricanes create chances off turnovers. Unlike Florida, which likes to do so with its speed, Carolina creates turnovers with pressure. The Lightning have likened the Hurricanes’ style to 60 minutes of facing a full-court press.

The Hurricanes play extremely well at home, and their “Caniacs” create a home-ice advantage in the postseason. They’re undefeated at home this postseason and 14-3 at home in their last 17 postseason games at PNC Arena.

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

Ultimately, given the Lightning’s knowledge of and success against the Hurricanes, Carolina would seem to be the best matchup. The Rangers appear to resemble the Lightning a little too much. But if Tampa Bay continues to play defense, block shots and protect the puck, it will be a difficult matchup for any team.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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