That’s it. That’s the lede.
That’s the selling point of this series, a heavyweight tilt between two of the best goalies in the world, going toe-to-toe at the peak of their powers. It does not get better than this.
It’s nice when the same lede works for both conference finals and while the West Conference will be dominated by offensive flair, the Eastern Conference will instead be a goaltending duel for the ages. There are plenty of star players on both sides that will no doubt add to the intrigue, but let’s face it: what will be most intriguing about them is how the goalies handle them.
Just like the battle on the other side though, there’s a clear favourite that dulls the matchup slightly.
It shouldn’t be a shock that the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions would be favourites in this series — the only surprise might be that it’s their first time being favourites in this postseason. Perhaps that’s a bad omen for some fans, but it was mostly just the model seeing a big difference in talent between the Atlantic side of the bracket and the Metropolitan side. Florida and Toronto were heavyweights and the Lightning beat them with their experience. The Rangers aren’t quite at that level — and have a similar lack of inexperience that may hinder them here.
Still, the Rangers are not to be underestimated. This will be the first time these playoffs that there’s something resembling a goaltending equal on the other side, but that’s still arguably an advantage for the Rangers. It’s one they’ve rode all season to incredible success — and these days the team in front is looking much more capable too.
The big question though will be whether Brayden Point suits up for the Lightning. He was listed as day-to-day prior to the Panthers series and has been given lots of time to recover, but his status is still uncertain and he doesn’t seem close. The odds listed above are based on Point returning for Game 5 which may be generous. If he doesn’t play at all, Tampa Bay’s odds of advancing to its third straight Stanley Cup Final drop to 62 percent.
That’s no guarantee and New York can take solace in the fact that its odds against the Hurricanes were similar.
Just a quick glance at the Rangers’ regular-season metrics pinpoint exactly why they’ve been the underdog in each matchup so far. Their five-on-five offense was subpar. Defensive improvements were made late in the season, but still aren’t awe-inspiring on the whole. Power-play scoring and goaltending were such key components of their success, which isn’t the most sustainable way to go.
To the Rangers’ credit, there have been some improvements in the postseason below the surface where they needed it offensively, with more shot and quality chance generation (with results slightly below expectations). Defensively, however, New York’s allowed more back — and much of that stems from a challenging Round 1 series where there was little structure in sight from their back end.
The Lightning, on the other hand, were a top-10 team on both ends of the ice at five-on-five in the regular season. In the playoffs, Tampa Bay did see their offensive generation take a slight dip across the board and the Point injury doesn’t help matters moving forward. The same is true defensively, but goaltending has been the difference-maker to make up for that. That extends to the penalty kill as well.
That’s an area where the Lightning will be tested, seeing as the Rangers can finish on the advantage. Their expected goal generation isn’t at the level of the regular season, which could bite them if New York can’t get past their opponents’ attempts to clog up the middle.
Tampa Bay’s power play has had more success in the postseason than the regular season, but the results are falling below expectations. That’ll match up against a penalty kill that isn’t as stout defensively as it was in the regular season, but (like the Lightning) has goaltending to mask that.
There’s a path for Tampa Bay to show why they’re the reigning champions. But there’s a way for the Rangers to exploit the Lightning in this matchup, maintaining their status as a disruptive underdog in the playoffs.
This series very well could come down which goaltending is stingier as the ultimate decider.
Vasilevskiy versus Shesterkin is the matchup.
On one side of the ice will be the elite goaltender who has earned that reputation through his postseason experience. It’s impossible to talk about the Lightning’s Stanley Cup runs without crediting Vasilevskiy.
In 2020, he earned a .927 save percentage and saved 13.7 goals above expected in 25 games. A season later, he exceeded that as Tampa Bay battled to retain their championship. In 23 games, Vasilevskiy had a sparkling .937 save percentage. And based on the workload he faced, saved 17.3 more goals than expected. That stands up as the best goalie performance in the “data era” since the 2008 postseason. His GSAx from 2020 lands fourth, behind only Jonas Hiller in 2008-09 and Mike Smith in 2011-12.
When it matters the most, the Lightning know they can count on Vasilevskiy between the pipes. He shutout his opponents in the last six of seven elimination games, dating back to the 2020 Cup Final against Dallas. The only goal against he’s allowed in a decider was from Morgan Rielly in Game 7 of Round 1 this postseason. Otherwise, he’s been perfect — with his best performance yet coming against the Panthers in the series-sweeping game when he saved 3.7 goals above expected and turned aside 49 shots. All together through those last seven series-clinching games, he’s earned a GSAx of 16.7. It doesn’t get much better than that.
So it’s no surprise that Vasilevskiy came into the postseason with the second-best projected value among the position at 4.8 wins.
To start this postseason, he wasn’t playing the Conn Smyth caliber play that’s expected of him. But when it mattered most in that series clincher, he elevated his game. Vasilevskiy went on to crush the Panthers’ hopes in four games. Against 13 expected goals against, he saved 10 goals, holding Florida to just three tallies in the entire series.
Overall, through 11 games, Vasilevskiy has a .932 save percentage with 10.1 goals saved above expected (5.9 of which have come in two series-clinching games, alone).
The only goalie in the playoffs to rank ahead of the Lightning’s starter in projected value is in the blue paint in New York.
Shesterkin leads the way with a projected value of 5.9 wins. That’s what happens when he’s the best goalie in the regular season. Along with a .935 save percentage in the regular season, he led the league with 37.2 goals saved above expected which was nine ahead of the next best, Frederik Andersen.
Despite some of the Rangers’ shortcomings in front of the net, Shestserkin gave his team a chance to win with 38 quality starts. And considering the offense he stopped, versus what the team in front of him generated, he stole nine wins as well.
But there were some question marks going into the postseason. Would there be a fatigue factor after carrying the Rangers in his longest professional season yet? Before this year, where he played 53 regular-season games, his longest season between regular season and playoffs was 44 games. Then there was the stretch of play when he came back to Earth late in the season, that could have planted seeds of doubt.
Shesterkin opened the postseason with an elite performance, but slipped in Games 3 and 4 in Pittsburgh during Round 1 when the team’s defensive structure absolutely collapsed. He bounced back to finish the series, and really elevated his performance against the Hurricanes, saving 11.4 goals more goals than expected in seven games. That brought him up to a total of 15.8 in the postseason in 14 games, which leads the league. So while Shesterkin may not have the resume of Vasilevskiy, he’s building it with his NHL experiences as they come.
The goaltending matchup in this series will be an absolute treat, but with the two goalies being so close in ability it’s likely that goaltending may not even be the deciding factor in the series. It may come down to how the superstar netminders are insulated by the team in front of them, specifically on defence.
This is where Tampa Bay has the edge at both forward and on the back end, thanks mostly to the depth the Lightning have amassed at both positions. They’re a team with few holes.
On defence, the group is of course led by Victor Hedman who is once again having a marvelous postseason. He leads all Tampa Bay skaters in GSVA with 0.56 wins, a 4.2-win pace that’s a decent shade above what he’s projected for. Earning 10 points in 11 games will do that, but his play at five-on-five has also been great as always.
The Lightning have earned 54 percent of the expected goals and 58 percent of the actual goals during the playoffs with Hedman on the ice. That’s in tough minutes against some legitimate superstar talent from Toronto and Florida — both of whom were stumped against Hedman. The Panthers in particular looked very frustrated facing off against Hedman and didn’t manage a single goal against him in 65 minutes at five-on-five. Credit Vasilevskiy for most of that, but Hedman’s defensive ability plays a role in that too.
With him on the ice, Vasilevskiy’s life is a lot easier. The duo have easily been Tampa Bay’s most important players so far.
Hedman isn’t the only strong player back there. The Lightning also have Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev — all of whom are projected to be top-pairing calibre. Part of Tampa Bay’s charm is having four such players on the blue line, a luxury very few teams have. It allows the Lightning to safely ice depth players like Zach Bogosian or Cal Foote without much issue, as they’ll always have a reliable partner to play with.
Though Hedman’s numbers are sterling, the other top defenders have lacked a bit in these playoffs. None of the three are living up to their projected values so far as they’ve hovered at or below break-even in expected goals. In terms of actual goals, only McDonagh is moving the needle.
That may not sound ideal, but it’s important to remember the context of competition quality here. The Lightning have had to face two Eastern Conference powerhouses whose dominance most shows up offensively. That they managed to collectively slow both Toronto and Florida down enough to win both series — and keep the chance count nearly even, is a testament to their ability. It makes what Hedman is doing even more impressive. It’s likely all four will see a big boost in their on-ice numbers against the Rangers, a team that can sometimes struggle to control play.
Like Tampa Bay, New York’s a lot better controlling play when their Norris winning defenseman is on the ice. Adam Fox leads all defenders in the postseason with 18 points, which is pretty impressive for someone making his playoff debut. He also leads his team in GSVA at .44, but that puts him on a pace of 2.78 which falls below projections. Much of that has to do with a challenging Round 1 while Fox saw time with Justin Braun. That duo had a 26 percent expected goals rate which is the worst among any pair this postseason.
Against the Hurricanes, Fox bounced back closer to a 54 percent expected goals rate and had stronger results to match. Despite some shortcomings like his footspeed that have been exposed at times, he can drive play from the blue line and be the difference in all situations.
Maybe the most vital defenseman for New York is his partner. Ryan Lindgren isn’t flashy, but his complementary play to Fox helps make that top pair click — especially when the replacement options are so subpar it puts the entire blue line in disarray when he’s out. The lefty has missed time this postseason, but is still the preferred option to Braun with Fox, Patrik Nemeth back in, and Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller taking on top competition.
Lindgren’s presence keeps Braun on the third pair with rookie Braden Schneider. This pair generates little offense and is all defense, which drags down their underlying numbers. To Schenider’s credit, relative to his teammates the Rangers are actually breaking even in expected goals against with him on the ice. But they only project to a value of -0.1 collectively, and don’t stack up to Tampa Bay’s defensive depth.
The Rangers project to have an edge in second pairs with Miller and Trouba, but their results were tanked when they were out of their depths in Round 1. They bounced back against Carolina — Miller’s the only defenseman to break even in both shots and expected goals in that series.
It’s an edge for the Lightning on defence and the same goes for the forward group — with or without Point. That being said, Tampa Bay is definitely much more vulnerable without him in the lineup. His absence gives the Rangers an edge in star power that might be the difference in a series that’s dominated by the goaltending matchup. It’s the game-breakers that are difference-makers against elite netminders and Tampa Bay being down one in Point is a legitimate issue.
The Lightning do have the best forward on either side of the aisle, though, in Nikita Kucherov, but he has a near equally dominant counterpart on the other side in Artemi Panarin. They’re two of the most dynamic playmakers in the league and will make for the most intriguing skater matchup in the series.
Up front, Kucherov is the guy that drives the bus for Tampa. He makes things happen offensively in a way few players in this league can and that’s shown by his 15 points in 11 games in these playoffs. Despite that production, there’s room for him to be better. Defensively, he’s allowing a lot with 3.17 expected goals against per 60 in these playoffs, the second-highest mark on the team. That was a problem that crept up during the season and needs to be cleaned up in this series.
The other issue might just be bad luck as Tampa Bay has only scored 2.22 goals-per-60 at five-on-five with him on the ice — none of which were put in by Kucherov. That’s well below his expected amount of 3.09, which leads the team. Kucherov is generating chances, but he and his linemates need to find ways to execute beyond the power play. That’ll be quite the challenge in this round against Shesterkin.
One reason Kucherov might be struggling might just be his partner on the top line, Steven Stamkos. In previous electrifying playoff runs he was Point’s wingman and the duo made beautiful music together. Stamkos, for whatever reason, has a history of wilting in the playoffs and that may be dragging Kucherov down. His eight points in 11 playoff games isn’t bad, but more should be expected for a player who scored 106 points this season — especially with three of his four assists being secondary. He’s ninth among forwards in points-per-60 at five-on-five and his 45 percent expected goals rate is one of the lowest marks on the team. The Lightning need him to step up. Badly.
Panarin’s also falling short of expectations. While he’s come up with some timely scoring in the playoffs, he hasn’t been the impact player the Rangers need him to be consistently — whether there’s an injury, a risk-averse strategy, or anything else impeding his game. The winger’s projected to be worth 3.7 wins to lead the team’s forwards, but he’s only on pace for 0.70 based on his actual play. It’s not that the team isn’t converting while they’re on the ice — their actual goals rate matches expectations. New York’s just not creating enough offense, and they’re allowing a lot back, which is why Panarin’s down to a 43 percent expected goals rate.
Against Vasilevskiy, there’s more emphasis on the Rangers consistently generating quality chances and Panarin needs to play a key role in that. He’s an elite player who thrives with the puck on his stick and can set up his teammates for dangerous chances.
At times this postseason, their focus has been defense over offense because there’s no combination that can absorb their workload of top competition. It has limited the pair’s impact at times, with Kreider and Zibanejad only having a 35 percent expected goals rate together at five-on-five, though they’ve at least broken even in goals.
Still, Zibanejad leads with 19 points in 14 games in his pivotal all-situations minutes. Kreider, the only remaining player from the team’s last meeting against Tampa Bay in Round 3 (which came in 2015), rose to the occasion in Game 7 to get here. The stakes are higher, and the Rangers need their play to match that.
As long as Point is out the Rangers have the edge in star-power — especially if Stamkos can’t step up. But depth has been this team’s Achilles’ heel all season and that could be a big issue in this series specifically. It’s where the Lightning have shined in these playoffs.
Tampa Bay’s two deadline acquisitions have been a big part of that. Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel are both driving play well to the tune of a 55 percent expected goals rate, a mark that trails only the team’s Stanley Cup good luck charm, Pat Maroon (who sits at 63 percent). The two have been an imposing presence on defence, limiting chances to a strong degree. Paul’s play has even earned him a spot on the top line, a cushy gig with two superstars flanking him on either side.
Part of the reason for that is that Anthony Cirelli, the team’s best center after Point (depending on where one places Stamkos), has really struggled to rise to the occasion in these playoffs. That’s been a recurring issue in each of the past two postseasons and it hasn’t changed here. By Game Score, he’s been Tampa Bay’s least effective player which stems from just two points in 11 games and a ghastly 42 percent expected goals rate. He’s the only Lightning player to not be on the ice for a five-on-five goal yet. Ouch.
That’s had an effect on Alex Killorn as well who has also had a pretty disappointing playoffs from a production standpoint. His underlying numbers are at least much stronger, which should help the second line find its groove, but the gritty winger has just four points in zero goals in these playoffs. He can usually be counted on for much more.
The addition of Ondrej Palat to the second line might help spark things as he’s been a key cog on Tampa Bay’s dominant top line in each of the past two championship runs. He’s Tampa Bay’s third-most valued forward after Kucherov and Stamkos and has the ability to drive play and be a difference-maker. He has eight points in these playoffs, though his five-on-five numbers are just break-even. If the second line can get rolling more, and against weaker competition it should be expected, the Lightning have a strong chance of getting by here.
If not, it’ll be up to the team’s unheralded third line to get things moving in the right direction again. That’s been the story in each of the last two playoffs and it seems that even though all three players have changed, the narrative hasn’t. Hagel’s impact on scoring chances was already touched on, but Ross Colton and Corey Perry also deserve plenty of credit too. Neither is dominating at five-on-five, but both are putting the puck in the net, which is obviously pretty important too. Colton and Perry actually lead the Lightning in these playoffs with five goals apiece and have looked like top-six forwards thanks to their goal-scoring prowess. That’s a luxury to have on the third line and Perry especially has stepped in nicely in Point’s absence. His average Game Score of 1.37 against Florida was second to only Kucherov for the series. Colton was third.
Like Tampa Bay, the Rangers had to add depth at the deadline. Frank Vatrano was one addition, and while he chips in offensively is a bit one-dimensional which can make him a weak link on the top line.
Andrew Copp was their biggest add, to bring in some two-way balance and versatility to the top line. He’s primarily been paired with the long-time duo of Panarin and Ryan Strome. That trio has helped the team outscore opponents 10-5 in the playoffs, but hasn’t broken even in shots and fares even worse in the quality battle.
That makes the success of the “Kid Line” all the more important for the Rangers. Alexis Lafrenière, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko were the most consistent combination in Round 2, even if their usage doesn’t reflect it. The Lafrenière has seven playoff points, all primarily, while Chytil has five goals. Those two are either matching or exceeding projections, Kakko’s the one player falling short with a GSVA of -.07. Still, they’re the only to break even in both shots and expected goals for New York.
The fourth line is stronger now from where they started with the return of Tyler Motte and Barclay Goodrow to slot alongside Ryan Reaves. Goodrow’s likely not 100 percent from his injury, but will be leaned on to defend against his former team. Motte’s been a bright spot, performing better than expected on a 1.03-win pace.
The Bottom Line
Tampa Bay is the better team here, even without Point. It’s unlikely many are questioning that especially with New York’s biggest edge, goaltending, being mostly nullified by an equally gifted specimen on the other side. The Lightning are deep and have the championship pedigree that makes them difficult to put away. Vasilevskiy is a massive part of that.
But the Rangers can’t be counted out here. Many did when they went down 3-1 against Pittsburgh, but they prevailed. Many did when they went down 2-0 against Carolina, but they prevailed. This is a scrappy and resilient bunch, one that doesn’t fold when things get tough. With their backs against the wall they find a way, something they’ve shown all season. Having Shesterkin helps with that as confidence in your goalie goes a long way.
But the Lightning have that too and perhaps it’s fitting the two teams will square off for the right to a Stanley Cup Final berth. It’ll be a goaltending battle for the ages and though the two teams have won because of that edge so far, that may not be the difference here when the difference between the two is so narrow. It’ll be up to the teams in front to dictate what happens. The Rangers will have their work cut out for them trying to dethrone the Lightning.
(Top photo: Mark LoMoglio / NHLI via Getty Images)