By Steve Silverman
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This is the series that the Rangers have been waiting for all season.
When you get to the Stanley Cup Final and lose, as the Blueshirts did last year, there can only be one outcome that will make the next go-around a positive one.
Getting back to the championship and winning it.
The Rangers know that if they do get back to the Final, they won't have to face the relentless Los Angeles Kings. What they don't know is how they are going to get through the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It's a somewhat disconcerting opponent for the Rangers, as they went 0-3 against the Lightning during the regular season.
Rangers fans may not want to give the season series too much credence because the last meeting was in mid-December, and there have been many changes since then, but the Lightning are dangerous and they are playing sensational hockey right now.
A little more than two weeks ago, the Lightning were on the verge of extinction. They had been beaten 4-0 by the Red Wings in Game 5 of their first-round series and were going back to Detroit, where the home team was poised to put them out of their misery.
Instead, after basically sleepwalking through the series up to that point, the Lightning went to Detroit and simply said no. They pounded the Red Wings 5-2 and then came back home and eliminated Mike Babcock's team with a near-perfect 4-0 victory.
That was the wake-up call the Lightning needed. They jumped out to a 3-0 series lead against Montreal, and while they stumbled in Games 4 and 5, they shut the door on the emotionally spent Habs, 4-1 in Game 6.
The Lightning got two goals from Nikita Kucherov, a goal from Steven Stamkos and another from Ondrej Palat to advance.
This is the second time that Stamkos has gotten to the conference finals, having been part of the Tampa squad that lost to Boston in seven games in 2011. The high-scoring forward showed his mettle in that deciding game. In the second period, Stamkos, already one of the game's elite snipers, showed he would do anything to help his team win, as stepped in front of a Johnny Boychuk slapshot that ended up hitting him square in the face.
Stamkos was wearing a face shield, but his nose was broken and he was a bloody mess. He quickly hustled off the ice for repairs and missed all of one shift before returning.
Stamkos is still the Lightning's leader, but he will get plenty of help from Tyler Johnson, who has explosive speed and has been Tampa Bay's most dangerous player throughout the playoffs, scoring an NHL-high eight goals. Make no mistake, Johnson is perfectly capable of finding the top corner late in a third period and ruining Henrik Lundqvist's dreams of getting back to the Cup Final. But he needs time and space to be dangerous, and the Rangers' defense has just not given up much of either this postseason.
The Rangers were just put through the gauntlet provided by the Washington Capitals, and after surviving against Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Evgeny Kuznetsov, they are not about to back down.
Expect the Rangers to be up for whatever the high-powered Lightning throw at them.
The real difference between these teams will be in goal. Ben Bishop has done well in the playoffs and he certainly picked up steam after a slow start against Detroit. However, Lundqvist is the best goalie in the world.
He overcame the heartbreak of allowing a last-second goal in Game 1 against the Capitals to help the Rangers rally from a 3-1 deficit. He was in a shooting gallery late in the third period of Game 6, but stood tall and the Rangers persevered.
Lundqvist could have collapsed at any point in that game as Ovechkin & Co. were firing purposeful lasers, but he never flinched.
It must be difficult for Bishop to realize he has to perform better on the big stage than Lundqvist if his team is going to survive. This is Bishop's first major exposure to the playoffs, and he's going up against the league's best goalie and a team that won the Presidents Trophy before showing true grit in advancing through the first two round. Sleep must not come easy for him, knowing the burden that will soon be on his shoulders.
The Rangers will find a way to win this series, and they may even win a game or two by more than a goal.
I say New York in six, and then it's on to the Stanley Cup Final.
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