Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) checks New York...

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) checks New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox (23) in the second period of Game 2 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Eastern Conference finals, Friday, June 3, Credit: John Minchillo

 TAMPA, Fla.

Two giant-sized banners adorn the side of a hotel just down the block from Amalie Arena. One is of the Lightning’s Victor Hedman and the other is of teammate Ryan McDonagh, anchors on what arguably has been the best defense corps in the NHL through runs to back-to-back Stanley Cups.

But what has been an advantage for the Lightning in previous playoff series has not been against the Rangers, who lead this Eastern Conference Final 2-0 entering Sunday afternoon’s Game 3.

The Rangers’ defense corps, a mixture of gritty veterans and rising youthful stars, has been a difference-maker so far. If the analytics don’t always show that, the eye test certainly has.

“It’s been huge,” coach Gerard Gallant said on Saturday at the team’s hotel on an off-day for both squads. “When our forwards come back and help them, it makes a huge difference because a lot of our guys play a lot of minutes, just the same as the Tampa defense. You rely on your big guys, but the other guys are just as important.”

Ryan Lindgren-Adam Fox. K’Andre Miller-Jacob Trouba. Justin Braun-Braden Schneider. Each Rangers pair has held its own, though Gallant rightfully referenced the forwards’ backchecking effort through the first two games.

“They’re getting in shot lanes,” Gallant said. “They’re playing their key minutes. It’s a group effort every night. It’s Foxy one night. It’s Trouba one night. It’s K’Andre another night. We see what Lindgren brings to our team. Schneider plays hard minutes; he plays 10, 12 minutes but he plays good and solid. And then you got Justin Braun doing his veteran thing. It’s an important group and they’re playing hard.”

Fox, who won the Norris Trophy in 2021, is averaging 26:36 of ice time in the playoffs and Miller is at 25:11. Miller had a goal and Fox had two assists in the Rangers’ 3-2 win in Game 2 on Friday at Madison Square Garden.

Gallant has compared Trouba to Hall of Famer Scott Stevens in terms of his thunderous hits.

Hedman, too, is a former Norris Trophy winner and the physical McDonagh was the Rangers’ top defenseman before being traded in 2018. Yet there seemed to be some passing-the-torch moments in Game 2. Hedman struggled in the first period, losing the pucks on forechecks and getting turned the wrong way defensively. The Garden crowd later took to cursing out McDonagh, their former hero, after a hard hit on Filip Chytil.

Perusing the invaluable NaturalStatTrick.com for series analytics, a couple of things jump out. First, the Lightning have a team Corsi of 54.50% five-on-five while the Rangers are at 45.60%, and that would suggest something other than the Rangers holding a 9-4 aggregate goal advantage through the first two games.

But the Lightning have an xGF (expected goals for) of 5.79 while the Rangers are at 4.25 and the Lightning have a 26-21 lead in high-danger chances. That indicates Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin is having a heck of a series, as are the defenders in front of him.

“I think we’ve done well,” Lindgren said. “We’ve got some young guys back there so we lean on guys like Troubs and Brauner. As far as Troubs, I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s our leader back there and he sets the tone each and every night. He’s always talking on the bench, helping guys out.

“We’ve stuck to our game plan of trying to keep things simple and being hard and being physical and closing out people in the D zone. We know that Tampa is a very gifted offensive team and they’ve got some guys that will make you pay if you get puck-watching.”

The task again becomes harder on Sunday, with the wounded (in pride) champions back on home ice. But the eye test has shown the Rangers’ defense corps can handle this.


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