It's entirely possible that someone has had a firm handle on the Eastern Conference final, and that what we've seen so far from the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning they had forecast themselves. It's not without question that they understood home-ice advantage would be the single-most important determining factor, at least it seems, and that the onset of rust would be the severe penalty from having earned some rest from the previous round. Maybe they knew that the legendary resolve from the two-time defending champions wouldn't be immediate, this time, and instead the bounce-back would be in bunches.
But those people, if they do exist, must be few and far between. Because unlike the Western Conference final, which saw the Colorado Avalanche swiftly establish dominance and breeze through the Edmonton Oilers in a series sweep, the first four games from the Rangers and Lightning so far have existed as an infringement on what we thought we knew.
It's not necessarily a unique scenario to be in. In fact, more often than not in the Stanley Cup playoffs we are learning in real time how a matchup will play out. There is no "if this, then this" in hockey, or " NHL math," and the head-to-head data from matchups in the regular season can only take us so far. Plus, there are more factors than we ever know having an impact on performance, with just about every player dealing with injuries and inconveniences picked up over the course of two months when the competition is at its most extreme.
There are always things we don't know, and just don't see coming.
But the Lightning have existed as something of an exception to that. With 60 postseason games across parts of 11 series played over the last three years providing a huge data sample, as well as offering the feeling of familiarity, hockey fans and media types have developed a fairly deep and nuanced understanding of this team.
We know what it looks like when the Lightning are at their best, when they are trying to survive, and even when they appear momentarily overwhelmed.
We have seen all three of these states in these playoffs and versus the Rangers themselves, and it still hasn't helped some of us from deciphering what is to happen next in the Eastern Conference final, which stands at 2-2 following Tampa Bay's best effort of the series Tuesday night in Game 4.
It's not without danger, then, to speculate on where this series is headed.
The same way it was wrong to believe that the Rangers would be beleaguered from consecutive seven-game series victories in comeback fashion, and therefore susceptible early; and that the Lightning would surely extend their run of resilience to 18-straight victories after a loss following their disappointment in Game 1; and that the two-time defending champions had finally reached their breaking point after failing to bounce back, it would be misguided to suggest that only one thing can be true as the series shifts back to New York for Game 5.
And yet, it very much appears after only eking out a single victory over the first three games — and needing to scratch and claw, and dig so deep in order to produce that victory in Game 3 — that the Lightning have exacted control in the series following Game 4, and that the Rangers should be feeling a measure of desperation.
We're seeing a clear separation now from shift to shift, with the Lightning not allowing a single goal against at even strength across two games in Tampa Bay.
It also appears that the attritive elements of the series would favour the defending champions as well, with the Rangers appearing more taxed and more injured now in a third straight series that threatens to go the distance. Even with Brayden Point unavailable on the opposite side, the Rangers, who did so much to address the issue of depth, could suddenly be even more disadvantaged with Ryan Strome and Filip Chytil potentially unavailable, and others like Barclay Goodrow and Andrew Copp also clearly suffering and trying to battle through injury.
But what's less speculative — and perhaps more powerful — is that the Rangers have been nearly unbeatable at Madison Square Garden. Behind the superhuman performances from their netminder, Igor Shesterkin, who has a .948 save percentage on home ice and has prevented more than 10 goals above average in nine starts, the Rangers have always turned it around, winning eight straight home games, and have staved off elimination three times at MSG.
At times it has looked as though Shesterkin has prevented what has seemed inevitable while shining on home ice, and the Rangers would eventually falter. But the Rangers looked as good as they have all postseason long in their home-ice victories in Games 1 and 2 versus the Lightning, who looked tired, and slow, and shockingly out of their depth.
While it would be surprising to see the Lightning look as bad as they did in those games, shouldn't we expect the Rangers to be far more comfortable, and revert to form?
Something has to change once again now that the Rangers and Lightning have each protected their home arenas through the first four games of the Eastern Conference final.
It was a series that was — despite the best-on-best goaltending matchup between Shesterkin and his countryman, Andrei Vasilevskiy — branded as something inferior compared to the superstar clash that was supposed to be out west.
But in keeping us on our toes and guessing, the Rangers and Lightning have not just easily surpassed and outclassed the opposite conference championship, but are now growing to provide one of the best series we've seen so far in what's been a fascinating and enormously entertaining playoffs to this point.
Because who's to say how it will finish?
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