Fleury – Crosby – Malkin. Check.

Holtby – Ovechkin – Backstrom. Check.

Bishop – Stamkos – Johnson – et al. Next up.

While the eyes of the NHL will be on Ben Bishop, Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson, the eyes of Rangers fans will be on the et al part of the equation as prodigal sons Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman attempt to prove that you can go home again.

Of course, the Blueshirts can match the Lightning “expatriate” for “expatriate” as Martin St. Louis, Dan Boyle and Dominic Moore look to spoil their former organization’s run to the Stanley Cup.

In truth, each team’s connection to the other runs a couple of players deeper. On the Rangers side, former Tampa Bay forward Ryan Malone appeared in six games with the Blueshirts before being assigned to Hartford and retiring. Defenseman Mike Kostka appeared in 22 games with the Lightning last year, including three in the playoffs.

On Tampa Bay’s side, Jonathan Marchessault was a member of the Rangers Connecticut Wolves AHL affiliate in 2011-12 (76-24-40-64) being signing with Columbus prior to the 2012-13 season.

As Rangers fans have come to learn, it don’t come easy as their team’s path to prosperity is hardly paved with gold. All 12 of the Blueshirts games have been one-goal decisions this season and, if you factor in the last two games of the Stanley Cup Final, that figure is 14 straight. In fact, 19 of the Rangers last 21 playoff games have been decided by one goal.

The Rangers fondness for 2-1 games is something that seems to be shared by other playoff teams. Through the first two rounds, over one quarter of playoff games ended with a 2-1 score.

The Rangers Eastern Conference Final foes handed them three losses in the space of 15 days from November 17-December 1, with Tampa Bay outscoring New York 15-7.

While at first blush the Lightning’s dominance seems to be extremely disconcerting, but a closer look tells a different story. The Rangers followed their December 1 loss to Tampa Bay with a 3-2 loss to Detroit on December 6 – a game that saw the Rangers blow a 2-0 first period lead. The Rangers were just one game over .500 and a deep run into the playoffs was not on too many people’s minds.

However, that loss turned out to be the turning point of the season. Starting with an overtime win over Pittsburgh, the Blueshirts ran off eight consecutive wins before losing at Dallas on December 29. The Rangers followed that loss to the Stars with a five game winning streak that included their three-game sweep of the California teams.

The Rangers went on an unprecedented 42-12-3 run that turned a run-of-the-mill 11-10-4 team into a 53-22-7 team that won the Presidents’ Trophy.

The bottom line is that the current New York Rangers are a much different (and better) team than the Lightning at the beginning of the season. Heck, Tampa Bay can the same thing as Johnson and defenseman Victor Hedman elevated their play to an elite level. But the Rangers difference is both one in terms of different personnel (Keith Yandle and James Sheppard) and growth of youngsters who are making a difference in the lineup on a nightly basis (Jesper Fast, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller).

In addition, the Rangers played the first two games against Tampa Bay without Captain Ryan McDonough and Fast was out of the lineup in the first game. Boyle and Tanner Glass missed the third game and while McDonagh did play, it was only his third game back in the lineup.

Of course, all of those regular season accolades go out the window once the playoffs arrive. While the Rangers can set aside their two weeks of hell against the Lightning, they should not forget it or they will be condemned to repeat it.

They need to heed the numbers Tampa Bay’s best offensive players posted during the three games. Stamkos led the Lighting in points with seven (2-5) and former Rangers captain Callahan paced the Lightning with four goals (two on the PP).

The Lightning’s Triplets Line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov combined for five goals and eight assists.

While all of those offensive numbers look good, their pale in comparison to the
6-foot-7 gorilla in the room – goaltender Ben Bishop. The fact that Bishop’s goals against average in the three games was 2.34 is a testament to the Rangers “success” against this season.

Bishop, who is 8-0 against the Rangers, entered the season with only seven goals against in his previous five games. Overall, Bishop’s GAA against the Rangers is 1.49 thanks to a .946 SV % and two shutouts.

As a comparison, Henrik Lundqvist is 17-12-6 with a 2.41 GAA and .914 SV% in 35 career games against the Lightning.

Another stat to consider is that St. Louis had two PPGs against his former teammates, but he played a team worst -6 in the series (as did Dan Girardi).

While the Lightning are a solid defensive team, 12th best during the regular season and 5th best in the playoffs, Tampa Bay’s game is built on their offense which led the NHL during the regular season and is 4th in the playoffs.

While Tampa Bay has size, especially on defense with the likes of Hedman (6-6), Andrej Sustr (6-7) and Braydon Coburn (6-5); and don’t forget Boyle who matches Sustr’s 6-7 frame, the Lightning are not expected to go out of their way to try and intimidate the Rangers through physical play.

Rather, the Lightning will look to pressure the Rangers by using their talent, speed and quickness. In doing so, they might be doing the Blueshirts a big favor.

It is interesting to see how the Rangers style of play and that of their opponents have developed over the years and through the playoffs.

In the Rangers matchups against Pittsburgh and Washington, the Blueshirts faced off against teams with offensive firepower but were more concerned with defending the Rangers speed, blocking shots and being overly physical than they were playing their own game. It was very reminiscent of the John Tortorella Era New York Rangers.

In facing Tampa Bay, the Rangers are facing a team that is similar to the Alain Vigneault New York Rangers. Both teams are built to beat you with their skating and speed. While neither team is overly physical, they are not going to back down from the physical play and both teams make sure to finish their checks.

Both teams watched as their main offensive guns, Stamkos/Callahan and Nash/St. Louis, struggled at the start of the playoffs. Both teams were living on superb efforts from secondary scorers. In the Lightning’s case, The Triplets have registered unreal numbers with 17 goals and 14 assists in 13 playoff games.

Each team has faced their come-to-Jesus meeting in the playoffs, Tampa Bay coming from behind to eliminate Detroit in the first round and the Rangers with their historic comeback against Washington.

In looking at the Rangers-Lightning series, here are five keys to a Rangers victory:

FORECHECK
The easiest way to slow down the Lightning’s top two lines is to keep them pinned in their own end. While Hedman is among the NHL elite defenseman and Stralman has elevated his game, the rest of Tampa Bay’s d-men are not big-time puck carriers. The Ranges best strategy might be to dump the puck into Hedman’s corner and look to hit him early and often and tire him out/slow him down before he starts the Lightning rush. Tampa Bay has been known to dress seven d-men and might do so once Callahan proves that he is fully over his appendix removed.

BEST PLAYERS MUST STEP UP
It is a foregone conclusion that teams need their best players to play their best in the playoffs. For the most part, that has been the case for the Rangers but two players in particular must step their game up an extra notch.

Rick Nash has probably played some of the best two-way hockey he has ever played in his career. Far too many times a star offensive player will allow his scoring slump at affect his defensive zone play. That has hardly been the case with Nash. With that said, the Rangers need him to step up his offensive production and start burying some of the chances he is getting. Instead of trying to be cute and get Braden Holtby to pen up his pads, Nash should have hit the slot with a wicked wrister on his Game 7 breakaway.

Nash could probably get away with being a playmaker if the third forward on his line could find his scoring touch. While Derick Brassard is tied with Chris Kreider for the team lead in goals (5), St. Louis has been nothing but a disappointment offensively in the playoffs.

The jump in his step that was his calling card for years in Tampa Bay is practically – so much so that Brooks Orpik managed to catch him from behind. It is possible that his knee is giving him trouble or it is possible that the end is near for St. Louis. After all, it is usually a player’s legs that go first and that is a death knell for a player who made his living on his speed and skating.

The bigger concern is that it seems that his hands and ability to finish have vanished as well. He was unable to bury a couple of close-in chances against Holtby – the kinds of shots that he used to bury in the past.

SPECIAL TEAMS
This is always a major key in every playoff series and will continue to be as long as the Rangers offense continues to struggle and as long as the Rangers continue to play one-goal games in the playoffs. Given the Rangers season-long struggles on the PP, they had success against Tampa Bay scoring three goals on 10 PP chances. Marty St. Louis scored two of them and Dan Boyle added the third.

The Blueshirts are going to need to find ways to increase their offense and improving their PP is the first step. Whether it is on the PP or at even strength, the Rangers are going to have to do some dirty work in front of the net in terms of being more than just a finesse team. They need to add a lot more “jam” to their game as Tortorella would say.

The Lightning was 4-12 with the man advantage against the Rangers in the regular season.

Carl Hagelin pointed out that stopping the Tampa Bay power play will also go a long way in slowing down The Triplets.

“Their Triplet Line there is really clicking,” Hagelin explained to Dan Rosen of NHL.com. “I think it starts with their [power play], and that’s where they get a lot of momentum. We’ve got to focus on just playing well defensively. I think if we do that we’re going to get some chances.”

BEN BISHOP
The Rangers are going to have to find a way to beat Bishop. They should probably study the Habs-Lightning Game 4 tapes to see what Montreal did to drive Bishop to bench 5:08 into the second period after allowing three goals on 14 shots.

Obviously, the Rangers are going to need to get traffic in front of the big guy and hope they can get to any rebounds. They also might want to steal a page from the Pens and Caps playbook and gently “brush” Bishop every now and then during scrums in front. Bishop does have the tendency to lose his composure if the going gets physical in front.

One thing the Rangers might want to do is get Bishop moving laterally. Big goaltenders and are a lot like big pitchers. It is easier for a big goalie (or big pitcher for that matter) to lose focus when their mechanics are off. The easiest way to foul up a 6-foot-7 netminder’s mechanics is to get him moving and forcing him to track down the puck, as opposed to letting the puck come to him. At that point, the smallest correction to their mechanics can become a major production.

DEFENSIVE ZONE COVERAGE
It is no surprise at times that the Rangers get pinned in their own zones for long stretches at a time. Despite the company line that the Rangers play a man-to-man defensive coverage, they do not. At best, they play what could be described as a matchup zone.

The Rangers forwards continue to drop down below the tops of the faceoff circles in order to cut off the shooting lanes – which means they are playing a spot (i.e. zone) on the ice. If they were playing man-to-man, two forwards (usually the wingers) would shadow the point men. Since the Rangers don’t do that, opposing forwards know they can pretty much use the point men as an unchecked outlet if they are being pressured down low. If you play close attention to it, you will notice how wide open the opposing point men are. As a result, the Rangers run into problems when they start chasing the puck rather than playing the man.

THE PREDICTION

Teams never really face a “Must-Win” situation until they face elimination. With that said, Saturday afternoon’s Game 1 is a “Really Wanna-Win” situation for the Rangers for two reasons. First off, the Blueshirts want to head down to Tampa Bay with two wins in their pockets.

Secondly, and more importantly, the rangers need to put to rest the questions about the regular season and Bishop’s dominance as soon as possible. The sooner they get that settled, the faster they can get down to concentrating on winning the series.

The mind and the heart are split on this one. My mind is telling me that the Rangers three regular season losses to the Lightning can be explained, but they can’t be overlooked. Both teams have come a long way since their final meeting on December 1. Of course, there is still the little matter of never having beaten Ben Bishop to deal with.

My mind could have been easily persuaded to join the heart if injuries weren’t such a big concern for the Blueshirts. Mats Zuccarello’s status continues to be uncertain, although some rumblings say that The Little Italian Norwegian Kid could see action later in the series.

While Dan Boyle did join his teammates on the ice for their Game 7 celebration and handshake line against the Capitals, you have to figure he is day-to-day and will be a game time decision for Game 1. While Matt Hunwick has done a fine job whenever he has been called upon, the revenge factor makes Boyle’s availability important.

The same can be said for Martin St. Louis. Either he is still dealing with knee issues (or some other injury) or we have witnessed the downfall of a former elite player.

The heart tells me that the Rangers have been overcoming this type of injury adversity from the beginning of the season. So much so that “Next Man Up” could be considered the team’s unofficial rallying cry.

While Ryan Callahan returned to practice, his availability for Game 1 won’t be determined until Saturday. Most fans expect Callahan to play, but how effective will he be and how effective can he be.

Tampa Bay has a lot of offensive ability, especially from their secondary scorers like The Triplets. However, the Rangers have the best corps of defensemen in the playoffs and they managed to contain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the first round and did a pretty darn good job on Alex Ovechkin (a couple of goals not withstanding) and Nicklas Backstrom.

During the last two years of playoff hockey, the Rangers have proven to be a resilient team – at least outside of the Stanley Cup Final. The Madison Square Garden crowd, especially those in the expensive seats, get criticized for being too stoic and corporate – which are things you don’t want from your fandom. However, it is something that you want in your hockey team – and it is something the Rangers have thrived on.

Former Rangers and NHL Dave Farrish has been providing an insight into his former team during the playoffs for NHL.com and credits the Rangers doing exactly that.

“No matter what the situation was they were very even keeled,” the former Ducks and Maple Leafs assistant coach told Dan Rosen. “They weren’t high when they won or low when they lost. There were very businesslike. Their attitude never changed. You couldn’t tell if they won the game or lost the game by their tone of voice after the game, especially Henrik. I thought that was very impressive, to maintain your balance like that.”

The Rangers resiliency has served them well throughout the regular season and the playoffs. They have overcome injuries, poor seasons from star players and inability of star players to score in the playoffs. They have mastered the ability to live on edge while their fans are living on the ledge with all of the one-goal games. The Rangers bend to the point of breaking, then bend a little more, before bouncing back to right the ship.

Leave it to The King to put the final stamp on my Eastern Conference Final Prediction.

“[The Lightning are] a team we had some problems with during the season,” Henrik Lundqvist explained to Rosen, “but if there’s one thing I learned, playoffs are a different story.”

Much like they always seem to do, the New York Rangers will find a way to overcome the roadblocks placed in front of them. The Blueshirts will return to the Stanley Cup Final after a hard fought seven game series against Tampa Bay.

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