(SportsNetwork.com) - The Tampa Bay Lightning hope to prove for a second straight round that what you do against a team in the regular season is relevant come playoff time.
The New York Rangers, meanwhile, are hoping to wipe the slate clean on Saturday afternoon when they host the Bolts in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Lightning and Rangers have never met before in the postseason and the opener of this series will mark only the fourth encounter between the clubs in 2014-15 and the first since Dec. 1. Although it's been a while since the clubs faced each other, it's hard to look past what Tampa Bay did to the Rangers this season. The Lightning not only won all three games but also were able to score at will against New York, something few teams are able to do against star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and his stingy defense.
Tampa scored 15 times over the three tilts and ended the regular-season series with a 6-3 win at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 1. The six goals tied for the most scored against New York this season and the Rangers never surrendered that many again after their last meeting with the Lightning in early December.
"It's a team we had some problems with during the season, but if there's one thing I learned, playoffs are a different story." Lundqvist opined.
The Lightning are in the conference finals for the first time since 2011, when they lost in seven games to Boston. Tampa has arrived at this point in 2015 after beating Detroit in seven games in the first round and downing Montreal in six games during the conference semifinals. Including the regular season, the Bolts went 9-2 against the Canadiens in 2014-15.
New York is in the conference finals for a second straight season after making it to the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago. The Rangers lost in five games to the Los Angeles Kings in 2014 but the reigning East champs posted the best record in the NHL during the regular season, claiming their first Presidents' Trophy since winning their last Cup in 1994.
After beating Pittsburgh in five games during the first round, the Rangers then overcame a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Washington Capitals in seven games.
It marked the second straight season the resilient Blueshirts overcame a 3-1 deficit to reach the conference finals. New York rallied to beat Pittsburgh in the second round in 2014 before repeating the comeback this season against the Capitals. The Rangers are the first team in NHL history to come back from a 3-1 hole to win a best-of-seven series in consecutive postseasons.
The Rangers also have shown this postseason that they're perfectly comfortable winning by the slimmest of margins. In fact, all of New York's games in this postseason have all been decided by one goal. Dating back to their appearance in last season's Stanley Cup Finals, the Rangers have set an NHL record by playing in 14 straight games decided by only one goal.
This series will feature a handful of players facing off against their old teams, with the majority of them currently playing for Tampa after stints with New York. Former New York captain Ryan Callahan is the most prominent ex- Ranger on the Lightning side. He was dealt from the Rangers to Tampa in exchange for Martin St. Louis, who was himself the captain of the Lightning when he requested a trade during the middle of the 2013-14 season.
Callahan missed Game 6 against Montreal after undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Monday, but he was back at practice three days after the procedure. He is expected to be back in the lineup soon and perhaps as early as today's Game 1. Callahan was a fourth-round pick by New York in 2004 and has four goals and an assist in three games against the Rangers since being traded for St. Louis on March 5, 2014.
Of course, Callahan won't be alone in facing his old team in this series, as fellow forward Brian Boyle and defenseman Anton Stralman also have spent time with the Rangers. In fact, both Boyle and Stralman both played big parts in New York's run to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring before opting to sign with Tampa last summer.
St. Louis has struggled personally in this postseason for a New York club which has had difficulty scoring in general, averaging just 2.00 goals per game this spring. St. Louis only has four assists through 12 games, a year after he carried the Rangers offense for a sizeable stretch of the 2014 postseason, ending last spring's playoffs with 15 points (8G, 7A).
Although the finale against Washington ended in triumph for his club, the recent Game 7 was a low point for St. Louis. He was benched for the final 10 minutes of the third period before getting back on the ice in OT.
The Rangers have to hope facing his old team in the conference finals can get the 39-year-old St. Louis back on track. St. Louis was a staple on Tampa's top line for more than a decade and helped the club win a Stanley Cup in 2004. He also won two scoring titles and a Hart Trophy (2004) while with the Bolts.
"It's always great to see your friends -- and, obviously, he's a special one -- do well, and you want them to do well until you play them," said Steven Stamkos, who took over as Tampa's captain when St. Louis left. "And then you obviously want to come out on top, your team wants to come out on top. I think if you ask both of us, that's the same answer."
Stamkos knows what it's like to go through a goal drought in the playoffs. Heading into the second round of the playoffs, Stamkos' lack of production was a concern for the Lightning, but fortunately for Tampa, that no longer seems like an issue.
The Lightning beat Detroit in the opening round despite the fact that Stamkos failed to score a goal in any of Tampa's seven games. After failing to score in Game 1 of the second round against Montreal, the captain's goal drought in the postseason had reached 11 games, but things would soon change.
Stamkos, who was second in the NHL with 43 goals during the regular season, scored three times and added four assists in the last five games of the Montreal series, helping his club dispatch the Canadiens in six games. Tampa's star centerman now has 10 total points (3G, 7A) this postseason, leaving him three points shy of his personal-best total from the 2011 playoffs.
Ostensibly, the Stamkos' line, which also features wingers Alex Killorn and Callahan, is Tampa's top unit, but the second line has been the most dangerous for the Lightning in the postseason. Known collectively as the "Triplets," centerman Tyler Johnson, left wing Ondrej Palat and right winger Nikita Kucherov are all 24 years old or younger and the offense they've provided this spring has been a bundle of joy.
Johnson, 24, garnered most of the accolades in the early part of the playoffs and is leading the league with eight goals this spring while also adding four assists. Kucherov took the lead in Round 2, torching Montreal for six goals and an assist. Overall, the 21-year-old Russian is second on Tampa with 11 points (6G, 5A) in the postseason.
Palat, 24, has added three goals and five assists in the playoffs and five of his points (2G, 3A) came during the last four games of the Montreal series.
While Stamkos has had his ups and downs in 2015 postseason, goaltender Ben Bishop has consistently raised his game. The 6-foot-7 netminder went 40-13-5 with a .916 save percentage and 2.32 goals against average during the regular season and is boasting a .931 save percentage and 1.81 GAA through 13 outings in the playoffs.
Tampa's offense has helped support Bishop with 2.62 goals per game in the postseason, but it could do better. The club led the NHL with 3.16 goals per outing during the regular season and likely needs to be closer to that number to overcome the Rangers in Round 3.
As good as Bishop has been this spring, Lundqvist has been even better for New York. The 33-year-old is sporting a 1.60 GAA and .944 save percentage in 12 games this spring, helping New York lead the league in team defense with just 1.67 goals allowed per game.
The Swedish star also seems to do his best work when his team is backed into a corner as he owns a 14-3 record in 17 career games when the Rangers are facing elimination. Lundqvist stopped 35-of-36 shots in New York's 2-1 overtime win against visiting Washington in Game 7, improving his lifetime numbers in Game 7s to 6-1 with a .97 goals against average and .966 save percentage. His six Game 7 victories ties him with Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy for the most in NHL history.
Stamkos boasted five points (2G, 3A) in the regular-season series against New York, while Johnson added two goals and four assists. Palat chipped in a goal and three assists to help Tampa dominate New York.
St. Louis posted two goals against his old club, while Rick Nash had a goal and two assists over three games.
Like St. Louis, Nash -- New York's leading goal-scorer from the regular season -- needs to pick up the pace on offense. He has provided solid production with seven points (2G, 5A), but New York is relying on him to score more goals. Nash led the Rangers with 42 goals during the regular season and his struggles hitting the net in the playoffs is nothing new for the 30-year-old.
Nash has 378 goals over 862 career regular-season games for an average of .44 goals per game, but that average drops to .13 percent in the playoffs thanks to seven goals in 53 postseason outings.
Chris Kreider, who is tied with Derick Brassard for the Rangers lead in goals this postseason with five, went pointless in the season series versus the Bolts.
Lundqvist was 0-3 with a 4.74 GAA against Tampa this season, while Bishop went 3-0 with a 2.34 GAA. For his career, Bishop is 8-0 with a 1.49 GAA in his career against the Rangers.
The Rangers will host the first two games of this series and the second meeting is scheduled for Monday.