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This will be the first time since 2011 that the Lightning will have been in the Eastern Conference Final. The Rangers have been in the conference final three times in the last four seasons. The Lightning haven’t reached the Stanley Cup Final since 2004, when they won the championship with forward Martin St. Louis as their leading scorer and Dan Boyle as their top defenseman; both of whom now play for the Rangers. While former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, center Brian Boyle, and defenseman Anton Stralman are now play for the Lightning. Callahan was traded to the Lightning in a transaction that brought St. Louis to New York on March 5, 2014. Boyle and Stralman signed with the Lightning as free agents this summer after helping the Rangers reach the Stanley Cup Final last season, where they lost to the Kings in five games. Tampa Bay and New York have not played each other since playing three times between Nov. 17th and Dec. 1st. Tampa Bay won all three games by a combined 15-8. Both teams have the benefit of speed so expect great skating, but both teams have dealt with outlying factors such as injuries and performing poorly or better in areas of the game contrary to the way they played during the regular season.

newsletter_usTampa Bay Lightning-

How they got to the Eastern Conference Final: The Lightning needed 13 games to reach the conference final. They trailed the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in the first round before winning in seven games, and built a 3-0 lead against the Montreal Canadiens in the second round before clinching in Game 6. We learned that Tampa Bay is an adaptable team and doesn’t just rely on one formula to win. They have leaned heavily on goaltending from Bishop who has stepped up to the occasion. Stamkos did not deliver in the series against Detroit, but ended round 2 on a five-game point streak, contributing three goals and seven assists in 13 playoff games. Tyler Johnson has had a phenomenal post season for the Bolts leading the league with eight goals, and sitting 3rd overall with 12 points.

How they can get to the Stanley Cup Final: This team can push forward leaning on goaltending from Ben Bishop, relying on a strong blueline held down by Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison, or by scoring ability and puck possession. But what will really be needed for a shot to play in the final will be a combination of it all. This is a team that has won games thus far in these playoffs in many different ways, but each time a different piece of the puzzle was missing. Tampa Bay began the playoffs with three of its top six defensemen dealing with injuries, but is beginning the Eastern Conference Final with a healthy defensive group. Stralman and Hedman have been a great pairing and have performed well. Ryan Callahan missed Game 6 against Montreal after an emergency appendectomy, but is already skating with his team and could provide valuable forechecking if he returns. Tampa Bay has a real weapon in the Tyler Johnson centered line with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat; the line has combined for 17 goals and 14 assists. Now that Stamkos has shaken the monkey off his back this team is far more dangerous. Bishop has a SP of .931 so far this post-season, but he will need to buckle down and not allow soft goals in this series. The Lightning had incredible offensive power and led the league in puck possession during the regular season and those aspects of their game have badly faltered during the post season thus far, but if they can play the way they did in the regular season this team will find itself in the final. Coach Cooper showed that he is not afraid to try something risky in Game 6 against the Habs he replaced Callahan with undrafted 24-year-old, Jonathan Marchessault, instead of favored prospect Jonathan Drouin. Marchessault proved to be a good choice in the 11:15 minutes he was on the ice. That being said the Lightning would have a better chance at playing in the final if Callahan returns, and if he can play as well as he did before his appendectomy.

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New York Rangers-

How they got to the Eastern Conference Final: The Rangers needed 12 games to reach this conference final. They eliminated the Penguins in five games in the first round and seven against the Capitals. Each of the games was decided by one goal, including eight by a 2-1 score, and four in overtime. The Rangers are 6-2 in 2-1 games and 4-0 in overtime (all the OT games had a 2-1 score). The Rangers earned this appearance with a 2-1 overtime win in Game 7 of the second round against the Capitals. They are the first team in NHL history to rally from a 3-1 deficit and win a playoff series two years in a row. Against Washington New York found its speed from Carl Hagelin, Kevin Hayes and Chris Kreider to be their most valuable attribute. The Rangers have only averaged 2.00 goals for the post-season, but thankfully for them Henrik Lundqvist has stepped up when he was most needed. He had a save percentage of .931 or higher in every game against Washington, and has a GAA of 1.60. They have an 89.3 percent success rate on the penalty kill in large part because of Lundqvist’s efforts.

How they can get to the Stanley Cup Final: The Rangers offense needs to find the back of the net because averaging 2.00 goals a game in the post season will not cut it for long. The Rangers were one of the highest-scoring teams during the regular season and if Henrik Lundqvist continues his stellar performance in the crease, and can give the offense an opportunity to step up their game this team can have a chance to move on to the final. New York has really improved their puck possession game during the post season and held their own against teams that were better in that area during the regular season. Ryan McDonagh has had a strong post season showing and is likely to remain a great asset in this series. Dan Girardi leads Rangers defensemen with 48 blocked shots taking some stress off Lundqvist. Coach Alain Vigneault hasn’t let the fear of change get to him as the post season has gone on he has made timely decisions to change up lines when they weren’t working, and this ability to adapt to game situations is the sign of a great coach.

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(28-23-13; 9th in Eastern Conference)

With arguably the most exciting single day of the season occurring on Monday, Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon chose to make a few splashes ahead of the NHL trade deadline.

On February 24th he started by trading away disgruntled forward Sean Bergenheim to the Minnesota Wild for a 3rd round pick in 2016, after a slew of healthy scratches made the move inevitable. A few days’ later, impending free agent Tomas Fleischmann was flipped to the Anaheim Ducks for a 2015 3rd round pick and worthless AHL forward Dany Heatley. These moves now leave Brian Campbell, Scottie Upshall and Tomas Kopecky as the only remaining members of the 2011 roster overhaul.

After creating some holes in the lineup, Tallon dropped a bomb that fans did not expect and that signaled a strong push to make the playoffs this season. The Bergenheim draft pick along with a 2nd round pick in 2015 were flipped to the New Jersey Devils for one of the greatest players to ever grace the NHL, 43 year old forward Jaromir Jagr. With dwindling playing time in New Jersey, a Jagr trade was inevitable, except that nobody expected him to go to a team teetering outside of the playoff race.

Tallon was thinking both short and long term in making this move. The improvement to the teams 26th ranked power play (at 15.7%) will pale in comparison to the mentoring and experience Jagr can provide to Florida’s young stars. Instantly he was placed on Florida’s top line with 21-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau and 19-year-old Aleksander Barkov.

“I’ve played the game for so many years you know, if you count the games in Europe, I think I’ve played the most games of any hockey player ever played,” said Jagr at his introductory press conference. “I’ve got a lot of experience and there’s a lot of young guys. And it’s even making me excited a little more you know, it’s kind of like new life.”

The acquisition, along with the return of pure shooter Brandon Pirri from injury, has already paid dividends. The team has gone 4 for 14 (around 29%) on the PP over the past 3 games, along with scoring 11 goals over the same period.

Jaromir Jagr makes his Panthers debut against the Buffalo Sabres in a 5-3 win:

The biggest offensive producers continue to be Nick Bjugstad (38 points in 64 games), Jonathan Huberdeau (37 points in 61 games), and Jussi Jokinen (34 points in 63 games). Bjugstad could very well have the first 50 point season of his career while Huberdeau has shot up the team’s point chart lately with assists (28). Jagr will be expected to produce more than he was contributing in New Jersey and Pirri is taking off after yet another injury. In fact if Pirri stayed healthy (14 points in 31 games), he would currently be the leading scorer on the team above Bjugstad.

The defensive corps has had to step up in the extended absence of Willie Mitchell (upper-body) and the 4-game suspension of Dmitry Kulikov. Mitchell hasn’t played since February 2nd, requiring a slew of call-ups from the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage. Defensemen Alex Petrovic, Steven Kampfer and Shane O’Brien have been superb in their appearances, with Kampfer and Petrovic giving Tallon a tough decision to make when Mitchell returns this week. Without the minor league support, Tallon likely would have made a defensive depth trade at the deadline.

“Team morale is very good and very high,” said Tallon. “There’s energy and enthusiasm and team makeup is important, and chemistry. You don’t want to disrupt that as well.”

Steven Kampfer scores his first goal as a Florida Panther:

Goaltending has remained solid with Luongo carrying the majority of the weight and maintaining a 23-16-11 record. Montoya was disappointing for a while, but has shown improvement in his past few appearances.

Tuesday’s game against the Maple Leafs was an absolute disaster in goal however. A needed win was turned into a circus, as both Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya were injured during the game. The unheard of situation saw forward Derek Mackenzie and goaltending coach Robb Tallas dress up as temporary backups, before Luongo eventually finished out the 3-2 loss.

The Panthers are now in the middle of a 7-game home stand that could decide the fate of their playoff chances. They face the likes of Dallas, the Islanders and Winnipeg before a difficult run against the Conferences best teams. They are 2 points back from the 8th seeded Boston Bruins and have played two more games. There is no more room for bad games and lost points.

The outlook for a young team prevailing over the more experienced and veteran heavy Boston Bruins does not look very promising. However, the Panthers will hopefully surprise enough critics and fans to make the race for the 8th seed interesting until the end. If they can keep up the recent scoring and keep coaches from suiting up as their goaltenders, they could stand an outside shot.

41-year-old Panthers goaltending coach Robb Tallas has to suit up mid-game:

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