The NHL playoffs consistently manage to subvert expectations, sometimes even within a series. The Tampa Bay Lightning are cratering; the Tampa Bay Lightning are surging. The New York Rangers are a team of destiny; the New York Rangers have a bright future and they are ahead of schedule. 

Despite the seesaw nature of the Eastern Conference Finals, there is one aspect that’s stable: lack of offence. That knowledge is our ticket to reaping dividends on Saturday. With the end of the season in sight, I am loading up this weekend so we can bask in the penultimate series before things wrap up. 

New York Rangers at Tampa Bay Lightning
Saturday, June 11 – 8:00 PM ET 

There are two ways to tell the story of the Lightning roaring back from a two-game deficit to position themselves for a close-out game on home ice. The first is a tale of matchups, namely how Anthony Cirelli was utilized. 

In Game 1, Jon Cooper mostly played Cirelli with Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat. In Game 2, for which Cooper dressed 11 forwards, Cirelli started as the pivot for Palat and Nikita Kucherov, but halfway through the game, Cooper made a critical decision. He moved Cirelli to play center for Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel, and the Lightning stumbled upon a new shutdown line. All of a sudden -- poof! -- Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider saw their production vanish.

In 20:33 of ice time on 5-on-5 in Games 3, 4, and 5, the Rangers' top duo has scored zero goals when facing the Cirelli-led shutdown line. They have been outshot 14-10 and shellacked in expected goals. But the kicker is high-danger chances, where the Zibanejad-Kreider line has yielded zero high-danger chances (!) to the Cirelli trio’s nine. The contrast with the first two games is insane; in those, the Rangers’ dynamic twosome stewarded four goals to zilch while also winning the high-danger chances count. 

In the Lightning’s three wins, the Rangers have one 5-on-5 goal, which was by Ryan Lindgren. The Rangers’ core has been unable to score unless it is on the power play. That is a problem.

The under-the-hood story for why the Rangers have lost three straight is that the Lightning have improved their switching in the defensive zone. In Game 1, Tampa Bay experienced a communication breakdown on the Kreider tally and the first Filip Chytil goal. In Game 2, the Kucherov line got its wires crossed twice, leading to an Alexis Lafreniere post and then seconds later a Kaapo Kakko goal. 

The Lightning play man-on-man defence, and since Game 3 they have done an exemplary job shifting their assignments and gapping up. They have gone from dial-up to 5G. 

The Rangers understand how difficult it is to score on the Lightning when they are in their defensive posture, which makes the klutzy switching in the first two games seem more like a gift than a trend. Compounding the concerns for New York is that Tampa Bay is applying a more detailed forecheck and exhibiting better puck management. When the Lightning’s puck support improves, the Rangers manufacture less cross-seam passes and odd-man rushes. 
The Rangers have relied on their power play and goaltending to boost them when their 5-on-5 play sputters. But in the past three games, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has been Igor Shesterkin’s equal and the man-advantage chances have dried up in the past two contests. Add in a layer of uncertainty with the injuries to the Rangers' No. 2 and No. 3 centers, Ryan Strome and Chytil -- plus the Rangers being on the road where they have struggled -- and I like the Lightning to close it out Saturday. 

Pick: Lightning -180

Sportsbooks are smart, and sometimes a curious line reveals they have figured out something before you have. But sometimes, every once in a blue moon, sportsbooks are just flat-out wrong on their lines. And when that happens, it means it is time to pounce before they adjust. This brings us to the Lightning depth players’ unders.

Again, offence is hard to come by in this series. The under has hit four straight times, and the goaltending has been superb. The Lightning’s super line has shown it can score, but in the past three games, the bottom-nine forwards for Tampa Bay have accounted for only two goals on Shesterkin. What I love about grabbing the points under for Cirelli, Killorn, and Paul is that, with Corey Perry taking the net-front presence role on the power play, they are deprived of a crucial scoring opportunity.

That isn’t to say opportunities haven’t come up for the Lightning’s role players. In Game 5, Paul hit the post and Cirelli had a chance on a two-on-one. It was Paul’s outstanding pick on Barclay Goodrow that allowed Mikhail Sergachev to find the shooting lane for his goal. 

But the matchups are brutal for all three players. With Cirelli and Killorn, their primary role is keeping Zibanejad and Kreider hemmed in their own end and salting away time until they leave the ice. Paul, meanwhile, is utilized against the Chytil line, which at times has been the Rangers’ most dangerous trio. Killorn is scoreless in this series, and while Paul and Cirelli have both gotten on the scoreboard, their application for Cooper was completely different in Game 1 and half of Game 2.

I think offence will be scarce in Game 6, and that for the Lightning will likely come from the Kucherov line or from the first unit of the power play. As the Sergachev goal from Game 5 showcased: Even when a line produces a goal, the catalyst doesn’t always register a point. I love all three to go under half a point on Saturday. 

Pick: Anthony Cirelli U 0.5 points -145, Alex Killorn U 0.5 points -155, Nick Paul U 0.5 points -180

The conference finals have elicited a remarkably unexceptional performance from the Rangers’ second line, led by Andrew Copp and Artemi Panarin. Through five games, the duo is being outshot and has been on the ice for a goal while surrendering one. In expected goals and high-danger chances, Copp and Panarin are being outplayed. It’s a similar story with shot attempts. In sum, Copp’s line hasn’t killed the Rangers, but it hasn’t helped much either.

In Games 1 and 2, Vasilevskiy posted a -3.1 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx). He allowed uncharacteristically soft goals and it seemed like his timing was off from the layoff, or at least that theory was posited by former-goaltender-turned-analyst Brian Boucher. 

Well, the Vasilevskiy of lore is back. In Games 3 through 5, he registered a 3.23 GSAx, slightly better than Shesterkin, and effectively sealed off the bottom of the net. It is a well-trod story that the high-blocker side is where to shoot on Vasilevskiy, but getting inside the slot against the Lightning has proven very difficult. Copp had an excellent feed to Ryan Strome in Game 5 that nearly resulted in a primary assist, but by and large Tampa Bay has been keeping the Rangers to the perimeter. In Game 5, the Copp line finished with four shots and one high-danger chance. Not terrible, but not good.

One of the most troubling elements of Game 5 for the Rangers, which makes me deeply suspicious of New York’s ability to score in Game 6, is the Lightning’s determination to deny the Rangers a clean zone entry. The Lightning have asked their defencemen to hold the lines throughout the series to varying success. But with an improved forecheck and more back pressure from the Lightning forwards, Tampa Bay will be aggressive at trying to stand up and force dump-ins.  

If Copp spends most of the game trying to exit his own end, and Tampa Bay forces his line to retrieve rather than create, I don’t see much room for offence from his trio. Add in Copp playing second unit on the power play, and I love the under here, too.

Pick: Andrew Copp U 0.5 points -155