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Just four NHL teams remain in the quest for the Stanley Cup as the league's conference finals get underway. The New York Rangers handed the Carolina Hurricanes their first home playoff loss at the worst time in Game 7 on Monday night, narrowing the field down to the final four. The West gets underway on Tuesday, and the Eastern Conference Finals drop the puck on Wednesday.
The Tampa Bay Lightning look more than capable of bringing home their third straight Stanley Cup, but they'll have to get past a Rangers team that is 5-0 in elimination games this postseason and has continued to perplex the analytics community in the process. The matchup features what most consider as the two best goalies in the sport, with the Lightning's Andrei Vasilevskiy going head-to-head with fellow Russian Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers. Tampa Bay is favored to get the job done, but it won't be easy.
Lightning favored for first time in the playoffs
It took until the conference finals, but for the first time in these playoffs, the defending back-to-back champions are favored to win a playoff series. After outlasting Toronto in Round 1 and sweeping the Florida Panthers in the second round while in the underdog role, the Tampa Bay Lightning return to their more familiar favorite role in the Eastern Conference finals. Tampa Bay is a -185 favorite to eliminate the New York Rangers and reach the Stanley Cup Final.
This marks the third straight year where the Lightning will face a New York team in the conference finals, as the New York Islanders arguably posed the biggest threat to Tampa Bay in both of their Stanley Cup runs. The Rangers will look to do what their in-state rivals couldn't do and take care of the Lightning. Unfortunately for the Rangers, history isn't on their side either. Their most recent conference finals appearance also combusted due to a lightning strike in 2015. The Rangers are +150 to make the Stanley Cup Finals.
League's two best goalies in the spotlight
The under will likely be a popular bet on a game-by-game basis in this series, and for good reason.
We know all about Vasilevskiy. The Lightning goaltender is the reigning Conn Smythe trophy winner, given to the playoff MVP. He has a Vezina Trophy and four total top-three finishes in voting for the award on his resume. In Tampa Bay's last seven series-clinching playoff games, Vasilevskiy has six shutouts and given up one goal total, stopping 199 of 200 shots in those games. If you need a goalie to win you one single game, you're probably going with the Lightning netminder.
However, Shesterkin of the Rangers might be second on that list. In his first full 82-game season in North America, Shesterkin has been the story for the Rangers. He will almost certainly win the Vezina this season. He's also one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy, which is given to the league's MVP and has historically had an anti-goalie slant. After a slow start to the Rangers' first-round series against the Penguins that saw him get pulled twice in the first four games of that series, Shesterkin has been tremendous. He's posted a .939 save percentage, going 7-3 in his last 10 games and avoided elimination five times successfully.
Whichever way you want to look at this matchup, you can make a solid case.
Vasilevskiy has the track record. He's been in the league since 2015. He's led the league in wins for five straight years. He has individual awards and recognitions. His playoff resume is almost impossible to poke holes in outside of 2019. Vasilevskiy has been a part of a team that has been to two conference finals and won two Stanley Cups. He had another solid season this year, ranking 12th in save percentage, ninth in goals against average and fourth in goals saved above expectation.
However, there's no denying who had the better season this year. As mentioned above, Shesterkin will win the Vezina Trophy, given to the league's best goalie in the regular season. He led the league in save percentage by a wide margin (.935, next closest was .925), goals against average (2.07, next closest was 2.17) and goals saved above expectation (37.2, next closest was 28.5). In three games against the Lightning this season, Shesterkin is 3-0 with a .958 save percentage, giving up just four goals total.
Put all of that in a blender, mix in the intensity and randomness of playoff hockey, and what do you get? Not much separating these two. Vasilevskiy has a slight edge in save percentage through two rounds (.932 compared to .928), but Shesterkin beats him handily in goals saved above expectation (15.6 to 10.1). If you want offense, they'll likely have you covered out West. If you want to watch the two absolute best duke it out in a goaltending clinic, the East is where you want to be.
What else to watch for
Goaltending isn't the only storyline at play in this series. While it's the headliner, there is plenty to dive our teeth into here.
First and foremost, despite the Lightning having the name recognition and being rather sizable favorites in this series, it's the Rangers who have home-ice advantage in this series with Game 1 taking place at Madison Square Garden.
Speaking of the start of this series, it'll be fascinating to see whether the extended layoff for the Lightning will have an impact. In the classic "rest vs. rust" debate, rest hasn't always been beneficial in these situations. The Lightning might be a different story. They have plenty of playoff experience to draw from, and their bodies could certainly use the rest due to all of the games they've played over the past three years. However, it's certainly not easy to get back into the grind and intensity of playoff hockey after having over a week off. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, it doesn't seem like the rest has helped in getting Brayden Point back into the lineup any quicker. He did not practice on Tuesday and isn't expected to play in Game 1.
Will the Rangers continue to be able to survive in these playoffs despite playing at a sub-40% expected goal rate at 5-on-5? That's the million dollar question and the main reason why a lot of people are hesitant to buy into this team. According to MoneyPuck.com, the expectations are that based on shot quality and quantity, the Rangers should be getting outscored 41-27 at 5-on-5 in these playoffs. Instead, they're outscoring their opponents 29-28. Shesterkin has a lot to do with that. The Rangers have also been buoyed by a powerplay that's converting on 32.5% of chances, the second-best rate in the playoffs behind Colorado.
How to bet the series
The Tampa Bay Lightning are -185 favorites to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, odds that suggest Tampa Bay wins this series just under 65% of the time. The Lightning have cashed as underdogs in the first two rounds of these playoffs, but bettors will now need to lay some significant juice if they want to back the champs.
The most likely series result according to the oddsmakers is Tampa Bay in six games, as that pays out at +325. Tampa Bay in five and Tampa Bay in seven both pay out at +450. Rangers in seven pays out at +550.
The Lightning are +105 to win the series in six games or less, while the Rangers are -125 to either win the series or at least force a Game 7. The series is expected to be a long one, as over 5.5 games is a -190 favorite.
The Rangers have refused to go away in these playoffs, much to the surprise of many. They continue to defy all conventional analytics, so if you expect that to continue, they are +150 to win this series and +500 to win the Stanley Cup.