TAMPA – If the rebuilding Rangers don’t end up making the playoffs, at least their fans can take heart that some of their longtime favorites will still have a chance to lift the Stanley Cup.
Rangers South, aka the Tampa Bay Lightning, is humming along with the best record in the NHL this season, and is one of the favorites to win the Cup. The current Rangers got a good, up-close look at the Lightning – featuring four of their former teammates, and two of their former captains – when they faced the Lightning Monday at Amalie Arena in the close of their two-game Florida trip.
“They have a really strong team, probably the best team in the league, I think,’’ Henrik Lundqvist said of the Lightning, which carried a 23-7-1 record (47 points) into Monday’s game. “They have extremely good defensemen; their forwards, they can all shoot the puck, and move the puck, really well, from side to side, so you can’t be locked in on one or two guys. You have to be aware of all five guys out there, and… their record speaks for itself.’’
The Lightning – with former Rangers Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, J.T. Miller and former Ranger captains Ryan McDonagh and Ryan Callahan making major contributions – had won six straight games and nine of 10 entering Monday. Backup goaltender Louis Domingue, filling in while No. 1 Andrei Vasilevskiy remains out with a broken left foot, was named one of the NHL’s Three Stars of the Week for his 3-0-0 showing last week.
Nikita Kucherov’s 44 points were third-most in the league, and Brayden Point was tied for second in goals, with 21. Steven Stamkos was just third on the team in scoring with 30 points. As for the ex-Rangers, Miller, a forward, had six goals and 21 points, and McDonagh, a defenseman, had two goals and 20 points entering Monday. Girardi had two goals and nine points, while Callahan had 3-4-7 in 27 games and Stralman – out of action with an upper body injury – has one goal and eight points in 16 games.
“Obviously, the team is really deep, and talented, and we work real hard for our success,’’ McDonagh said. “That makes coming to the rink a lot of fun, and being able to be a big part of their success this year has been a lot of fun and, you know, our group is pretty aware that it’s been only 30-some-odd games for us, and there’s a lot of hockey left to be played, so we’re continuing to fine tune and get better.’’
McDonagh and Miller were dealt to the Lightning at the deadline last season in a blockbuster trade that brought back forward Vladislav Namestnikov, along with prospects Brett Howden and Libor Hajek, a 2018 first round pick that GM Jeff Gorton used to trade up and draft defenseman K’Andre Miller, plus a conditional first rounder in 2019.
Monday’s game was the third meeting between the teams since the trade, so Miller and McDonagh – and Namestnikov – had played against their former teams before. But a matchup between the teams was still special to the ex-Rangers.
“I know a lot of their players and am still close with a lot of them,’’ McDonagh said of the Rangers. “And their staff, especially. I grew up with them, and came into the league with them, so anytime you see them throughout the season, it’s special to reconnect with them there. And I still follow along with the guys I was teammates with before, and I just hope that they have success.’’