Game 24 Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning vs New York Rangers

With eight wins and two losses at home so far this season, the Tampa Bay Lightning (14-8-1, 29 PTS) must be happy to be back at the far more familiar confines of the Tampa Bay Times Forum after finishing its just-ended four-game road swing through the Pacific Divison goalless and on the losing end of a protracted goalie duel in Anaheim and having eked out a mere point out of eight initially possible. Tonight’s challenge is the New York Rangers (12-11-0, 24 PTS), a team on the mend which blanked the Predators in a dominant road showing the other night.

The Rangers took the last meeting in much the same way as it did the previous match between the two clubs: rather decisively. The Lightning lost all of its contests against the Blueshirts during the lockout-abbreviated season earlier this year. Much has changed for both teams since then. While the Lightning began its ongoing metamorphosis by parting ways with head coach Guy Boucher, the Rangers’ started its own by shipping high-profile winger Marian Gaborik to the Blue Jackets in exchange for forwards Derek Dorsett and Derek Brassard as well as as defenseman John Moore and a late-round pick for the 2014 draft. After another disappointing playoff exit — this time after being ousted in five games by the Bruins — and with a divisive rift between head coach John Tortorella and then-struggling Brad Richards over the latter’s usage emergent, general manager Glen Sather ultimately decided to set sail with a new bench boss at the helm. The Rangers also added a pair of former Bolts — Dominic Moore and Benoit Pouliot — during the off-season.

The beginning of the Alain Vigneault era got off to a rather shaky start as New York lost six of its first eight matches and early concern for the play of its prized veteran netminder, Henrik Lundqvist, but happy days seem here again, fueled in large part — surprise! — by better overall team performances. As the Rangers’s possession game, which was abysmal out of the gate, has steadily improved and begun to stabilize towards last year’s numbers, so, too, have the defensive metrics and, thus, goaltending. New York enters tonight having allowed two or fewer goals in fifteen of its last eighteen games, as well as each of the last five it has played.

New York’s Rolling Fenwick (Unblocked Shot Attempts) Percentage via Extra Skater

The Rangers have been helped along the way by the hot play of a 26-year-old rookie goalie, Cam Talbot, who has gone 5-1-0 in six nearly flawless big-league starts. The Rangers seem to be playing at a slightly faster pace, allowing roughly six more attempts per 60 minutes (of “Close” game action) than last season while currently generating about three more under Tortorella. So far, though, the club’s shot rate differential (again, “Close”) has actually seen a minor gain from before.

Curiosities aside, the Rangers provide some very particular tough match-ups for the present Lightning squad, which has had its struggles at both ends in recent games. Adding to the challenge will be the absence of Ryan Malone and Radko Gudas, nicked up during the Ducks game. Keith Aulie and Tom Pyatt — whose brother, New York winger Taylor Pyatt, will also be scratched — are out, too. In need of bodies, Tampa Bay decided to recall its 2nd-round selection from the 2011 draft, prolific young winger Nikita Kucherov, as well as rearguard Dmitry Korobov. Kucherov, who’s been tearing up the AHL as a 20-year-old pro rookie after scorching the QMJHL last season, will be making his NHL debut whereas Korobov got his first taste of NHL action last week against the Kings.

Bringing up Kucherov instead of recently-demoted Brett Connolly is a clear attempt to bolster a Lightning attack that has wavered in effectiveness and had a hard time coming up with results since the home blowout of the Ducks. The Bolts possession game, which had seen improvement since Jon Cooper took over and had been trending upward, cooled off a bit on the last road trip. It’s a development that’s not exactly a surprising given the evident buzz-saw of quality opponents Tampa Bay had to face.

Tampa Bay’s Rolling Fenwick (Unblocked Shot Attempts) Percentage via Extra Skater

Kucherov’s no slouch when it comes to creating chances but he’s equal parts finisher. His stint with the Lightning is probably going to be very brief given the Bolts’ AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, is stretched pretty thin but it’s a worthwhile experiment to see if the young Russian can spark the Lightning much like JT Brown has since arriving.


Season Series

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Special Teams

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Team stats cited from Extra Skater.

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