TAMPA — After a week and a half of waiting, the Eastern Conference final finally is set. The Lightning will face the Rangers in the Stanley Cup semifinals after New York defeated Carolina Monday in Game 7 of their second-round series.
The teams are meeting for the first time in the playoffs since 2014-15, when the Lightning won the conference final in seven games to advance to the Cup final against the Blackhawks. Only forward Chris Kreider remains on the Rangers roster from that season.
Tampa Bay and New York played each other three times this season, with the Lightning going 0-2-1 and getting outscored 10-4. New York’s prolific offense has continued into the postseason, and its power play remains a threat, too, at 32.5% (second-best in the playoffs).
With Game 1 set for Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, here are five Rangers to keep an eye on:
Igor Shesterkin, goaltender
A Vezina Trophy frontrunner, Shesterkin picked up where he left off in the regular season and continues to impress through the first two rounds. He is fourth in the postseason with a .928 save percentage. With the Game 7 win, Shesterkin became the third goalie in Rangers history to win multiple career Game 7s, joining Henrik Lundqvist and Mike Richter.
“He’s created quite a name for himself, and it’s well-deserved,” Bally Sports Sun Lightning color analyst Brian Engblom said. “It must be something in the New York goaltender room water. They go from Henrik Lundqvist to Shesterkin and maybe because he got a chance to see what Henrik was like, there’s a flair to him and it fits with New York, it fits with the Rangers. He has that sort of ‘it’ thing that makes you watch him.”
Memorable moment: In addition to his 37 saves, Shesterkin assisted on goals by Mika Zibanejad and Filip Chytil in the Rangers’ 5-2 win over the Hurricanes in Game 6.
This postseason: Shesterkin has a .928 save percentage (474 saves on 511 shots), 2.68 goals-against average in 14 games
Against the Lightning: 3-0 this season, with four goals-against and a .958 save percentage
Artemi Panarin, winger
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Panarin, the Rangers’ version of Nikita Kucherov, hasn’t had a splashy postseason but has found other ways to contribute to the team’s success. When he’s not scoring, Panarin’s play-making abilities, especially on the power play, make him an ever-present threat on the ice.
“He is a mirror image of Nikita Kucherov,” Engblom said. “Plays the same kind of game, plays the same way … He wants to draw other people toward him so that he can make another play to somebody else. He’s ever-dangerous and creative like very few players in the league.”
Memorable moment: Panarin’s power-play goal — his first goal of the series — in the Game 6 win over the Hurricanes invigorated the home crowd, even with four goals already on the board for New York. His snipe from the top of the slot whipped past Carolina’s Pyotr Kochetkov to help seal the 5-2 win.
This postseason: Four goals and seven assists through 14 games
Against the Lightning: Two assists in two games (missed Jan. 2 game to COVID-19 protocol)
Adam Fox, defenseman
Fox has been the stabilizer on New York’s blue line all season. Though he didn’t wasn’t a Norris Trophy finalist after winning the award as the NHL’s best defenseman last season, he continues to take care of all situations on the ince, especially under pressure. His 10 points in five elimination games this year are the most by a defenseman in a single playoff year.
“He’s a great two-way player, a great passer, has a great head for the game,” Engblom said. “His point totals are incredible. He’s subdued but effective. He’s not (Colorado’s Cale) Makar, he’s not (Lightning defenseman) Victor Hedman, he’s just something else that is just really effective.”
Memorable moment: Fox’s power-play goal opened the scoring in Game 7 against the Hurricanes, helping the team to a 6-2 win.
This postseason: Five goals and 13 assists through 14 games (second on the team in the playoffs with 18 points and fourth-most in the league)
Against the Lightning: Three assists in three games
Mika Zibanejad, center
It’s no surprise that Zibanejad has found a way to drive the Rangers’ offense this postseason, leading the team with 19 points. His offensive contributions have only deepened New York’s lineup, leaving plenty of space and opportunities for Panarin and Chris Kreider.
“He’s fast, he’s smooth, can make plays as equally well as he can shoot the puck,” Engblom said. “He can really take over games and create momentum, and that’s what you want in your top-line center.”
Memorable moment: When Zibanejad lost his stick during Game 4, he skated most of the length of the ice to the Rangers bench, then squeezed through the door and reached behind Ryan Reaves to grab a replacement before jumping back into play.
This postseason: Seven goals and 12 assists — including three assists in Game 7 of the Carolina series — through 14 games. His 19 points lead the Rangers and are third-most in the league.
Against the Lightning: Four goals in three games, including a hat trick in on Jan. 2
Jacob Trouba, defenseman
If there’s another parallel Lightning fans can draw, it’s between New York blueliner Jacob Trouba and Tampa Bay’s Ryan McDonagh. Both eat up a lot of ice time and do a lot for their respective teams, excelling at the defensive aspects of the game, Englom said.
“I think he’s been really underrated for them,” Engblom said. “He’s got a nasty edge to him, and he’s a hitter. He hits really hard, and he’s better at hitting than most guys and he also controls the game and shuts the rush down better. I would not underestimate him.”
Memorable moment: Trouba’s hit on Carolina’s Seth Jarvis in Game 7 was one to remember. The hit left Jarvis with an upper-body injury and unable to play for the remainder of the game.
This postseason: One goal, three assists and plus-two through 14 games
Against the Lightning: One goal in three games
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