NEW YORK — In the end, the Lightning will decide when their time is up.
Not Connor McDavid and not Nathan MacKinnon. Not Igor Shesterkin and not any other player still competing in these Stanley Cup playoffs.
If the first two rounds of the postseason have taught us anything, it is that the Lightning still control their destiny despite the salary cap, the injuries, the grind of the regular season and any other fear you might have been harboring these past few months.
We have learned that Yanni Gourde’s third line was not irreplaceable, and that Tampa Bay’s appetite for winning had not gone overboard in the last boat parade. We learned that Andrei Vasilevskiy is still the best goaltender in the world, and Julien BriseBois has not lost his magic touch.
We learned, belatedly, that a third consecutive Stanley Cup was more feasible than most of us ever imagined.
Which is not to say that a celebration is imminent.
Yes, the Lightning may be the team to beat (even if Vegas favors Colorado) but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are on the way to glory. Any team is capable of beating itself in the right circumstances. Trust me, we’ve seen it around here enough to know.
With that in mind, here are four ways the Lightning can stumble in the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers.
The last two times the Lightning lost a series in the postseason — in 2018 and ‘19 — their top scoring line disappeared at crunch time.
Tampa Bay was shut out by Washington in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 2018 and then was swept by Columbus in the first round of 2019. The common denominator was the Capitals and Blue Jackets completely manhandled Tampa Bay’s high-scoring forwards.
Between them, Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point scored one even-strength goal in those six consecutive losses over two postseasons. They were, to put it bluntly, bullied by bigger players.
That’s one of the reasons the Lightning brought in Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman, Pat Maroon, Zach Bogosian, Luke Schenn and Kevin Shattenkirk in 2020. They needed to be bigger, and more physical. They needed to respond to teams that pushed them around in the postseason.
“People are out there, trying to hurt him. Unfortunately, in playoff hockey, you’re trying to get (at) the best player,” said Maroon. “But the way he can scratch and crawl around it, the way he can make passes on the power play, the way he can see the ice, his skill set. It just looks like he’s gliding out there.”
This is the one problem the Lightning had all year long that has carried over into the playoffs. They were second in the NHL in most penalties taken during the regular season at 4.29 per 60 minutes, and it’s increased to 4.69 in the postseason.
Now, a lot of that came during the Toronto series when officials were seemingly whistle-happy, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Lightning failed to adjust to the way the series was being called.
Follow all the action on and off the ice
Subscribe to our free Lightning Strikes newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
New York, on the other hand, has been one of the most disciplined teams in the playoffs. The Rangers have averaged only 3.56 penalties per 60 minutes.
This was also a problem for the Lightning when New York swept them in three regular-season meetings. The Rangers had 13 power plays compared to nine for Tampa Bay. If the numbers are that lopsided during the Eastern Conference final, the Lightning will be in trouble.
In retrospect, it’s remarkable how easily the Lightning swept the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers without Brayden Point in the lineup.
Point has led the NHL in playoff goals in each of the last two postseasons, but has not been seen since suffering a lower-body injury in Game 7 against Toronto.
Tampa Bay’s defense-first philosophy in the postseason is what beat Florida, but the Lightning also got lots of scoring from unexpected sources. Erik Cernak, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Maroon and a resurgent Corey Perry contributed nearly half of Tampa Bay’s goals in the series.
It would be great if the trend continued against New York, but it’s not going to be nearly as easy. Florida was an offensive team that got frustrated against the Lightning’s defensive pressure. The Rangers are a defensive team that is comfortable playing close, low-scoring games.
New York won seven games in the regular season while scoring two goals or less, which was tied for second in the NHL. The Lightning have won three games in the postseason with two goals or less, which leads the NHL. In other words, scoring is going to be at a premium and that’s going to make Point’s availability even more critical.
Someone is going to have to step up.
He is the ace in the hole. The difference-maker. The security blanket. For the past two seasons, Vasilevskiy has given the Lightning an advantage in every series they’ve played.
That remains true against the Rangers, but the margin is much slimmer than normal.
While Vasilevskiy had the most underwhelming regular season of his career, Shesterkin was a Vezina Trophy candidate in New York. He’s won back-to-back Game 7s for the Rangers, and he had a .957 save percentage with a 1.33 goals-against average in three wins against the Lightning in the regular season.
After the Rangers beat the Hurricanes on Monday night, Shesterkin called Vasilevskiy the best goaltender in the world. The problem is, if Vasilevskiy has even a slight hiccup, Shesterkin is the rare opponent who can make the Lightning pay.
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.
Never miss out on the latest with the Bucs, Rays, Lightning, Florida college sports and more. Follow our Tampa Bay Times sports team on Twitter and Facebook.