There are plenty of side stories to focus on when the Lightning and Rangers get the Eastern Conference finals going Saturday afternoon.
But aside from the trade of captains Marty St. Louis and Ryan Callahan in March 2014, aside from Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman jumping ship from the Rangers to Tampa Bay in free agency and even aside from the strong Long Island connections behind the Lightning bench, this is a Tampa Bay team that has completely revamped itself from being the third-worst team in the NHL two seasons ago.
The Lightning already is a force at the top of the competitive Eastern Conference. Here's why Tampa Bay could give the Rangers fits:
THE TRIPLETSNikita Kucherov became a Lightning regular only this season. Tyler Johnson was an undrafted free agent who spent two full seasons in the AHL. Ondrej Palat was a seventh-round pick four years ago. Those three have blossomed into Tampa Bay's best forward line, a trio that has meshed with creativity and compensated for a lack of size. Johnson leads the NHL with eight playoff goals; Kucherov had six in the six-game series win over the Canadiens.
THE STARSteven Stamkos was the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft, and after six seasons as a pure scorer on a team that accomplished little, he's become the leader of this group, named captain right after St. Louis' departure last season. He didn't score a goal through the entire first round plus Game 1 against Montreal, then had goals in three of the final five games. He will force the Rangers to choose: Does Alain Vigneault assign the Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi combo to Stamkos and let the bigger, less agile Marc Staal-Kevin Klein pair chase the Triplets around?
THE BIG GUY IN GOALBen Bishop turned out to be the missing piece for the Lightning when he was acquired from Ottawa by general manager Steve Yzerman at the 2013 trade deadline for the modest sum of Cory Conacher and a fourth-round pick. Bishop's late-season wrist injury last year derailed any Lightning playoff hopes, but he was strong enough to pull out a Game 7 win over the Red Wings, took down presumptive league MVP Carey Price in the second round and now has a chance to outduel Henrik Lundqvist for a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. Not bad for a 6-7 goaltender who had 45 career appearances for three different teams before the 2013-14 season.
ON DEFENSEAside from Stralman, who is a possession monster and the player who drives Tampa Bay's transition game best, the Lightning has an imposing blue line. Victor Hedman skates well for a 6-5 player, Andrej Sustr clocks in at 6-8 and 6-5 Braydon Coburn, acquired at the deadline from Philadelphia, has fit in well. The Rangers will need their speed to counter Tampa Bay's big boys.
Former Ranger Brian Boyle and Valteri Filppula take the majority of Tampa Bay's faceoffs and they're at 53.7 and 52.7 percent, respectively, in the postseason. The Rangers have been awful at the dot. Tampa Bay's speed game starts with winning faceoffs.