We’re almost there. One conference final is into elimination territory, and the other will be after tonight. We’re just days away from having our Stanley Cup final matchup, at which point the NHL scheduling department will probably give us two weeks off to think about it.
Here are 10 thoughts on a weekend’s worth of conference finals action.
1. Ben Bishop makes his move. Like most playoff series, this Rangers-Lightning battle has largely been about the goalies. After a defensive battle in Game 1 resulted in a 2-1 Rangers win, the Lightning poured it on with a dozen goals over the next two games. That led to speculation over what was wrong with Henrik Lundqvist. Was he tired? Hurt? Had the Lightning, who’d also lit him up during the regular season, somehow figured something out that the rest of the league had missed?
Apparently not, since he looked fine Friday, as the Rangers stormed to an easy 5-1 win. That meant it was Bishop’s turn under the microscope, with Jon Cooper even being asked whether he’d considered switching goalies for last night’s Game 5 in New York. That led to a weird discussion over whether the word “asinine” could appear in a newspaper (don’t ask), and an assurance that Bishop would be back in the net. And indeed he was, although that briefly seemed in doubt when he took a puck in the groin during warm-ups.
One shutout win later, we can safely say that was the right call. Bishop didn’t make any especially spectacular saves last night, but he didn’t need to. This was a night when a solid performance was all it would take to grab the series lead, and Bishop delivered at least that. He even kind of sort of seemed to take a shot at the empty net when the Rangers pulled Lundqvist with three minutes left; his weak shot was the only thing he screwed up all night.
Bishop is now 6-1 after losses in this year’s playoffs, which is a bad sign for the Rangers if they can win tomorrow in Tampa Bay and extend the series to a Game 7. Of course, Lunqvist is 12-3 when facing elimination since 2012, so go ahead and pick the stat you want to believe in.
Either way, it’s safe to say there won’t be any question about Bishop’s status heading into Game 6. (Barring another shot to the pills, of course.)
2. They can’t all be winners. Last week, we talked about how the Rangers’ tendency to play low-scoring games didn’t necessarily translate into a boring style. In that spirit, let’s just chalk up last night as the exception that proves the rule. It wasn’t a dull game, but it certainly wasn’t exciting, as the Lightning played the sort of smothering road game that coaches love and fans have learned to tolerate.
The teams combined for just 48 shots, with the Lightning blocking more (26) than they got on the Rangers’ net (22). At one point, that included almost an entire half-period without a single save. Every NHL playoff series includes a few memorable games and a few that will be largely forgotten. Let’s chalk this one up as a stage-setter for whatever comes next and move on.
3. Steven Stamkos stays hot. Remember when the main Lightning story line was that the Triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov were producing enough offense to mask a disappointing postseason from Stamkos? You probably do, since it was a week ago. Well, the Lightning captain has now scored in four straight games, including last night’s power-play tap-in off a brilliant tic-tac-toe passing play.
Needless to say, that’s yet another thing to worry about for the Rangers, and it could soon be something to worry about for whoever comes out of the West. The Lightning were the league’s highest-scoring team in the regular season, and that doesn’t tend to translate to Stanley Cups. When they were largely a one-line team, the Lightning still managed to look dynamic offensively. If the big line stays hot while Stamkos and linemates Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula (who also scored last night) also get rolling, look out.
Now, about that third line …