Point/Counterpoint with Tampa Bay Lightning Reporter, John Fontana: Previewing the Eastern Conference Finals, Talking Rangers vs Bolts, Callahan vs MSL, Bishop vs Lundqvist, Strengths vs Weaknesses & Much More In This Detailed ECF Preview

The ECF, it’s on!

The Eastern Conference Finals starts this Saturday, at 1PM in MSG. You can read my Capitals/Rangers Game 7 Recap, the official Rangers postgame news/notes & get the entire ECF schedule off the main page here on DOINOW.com.

Today I am joined by John Fontana (@johnny_fonts on twitter) of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s RAWCHARGE.com website for a special Point/Counterpoint conversation, as Johnny & I preview the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals.

I took a lot away from my conversation with John and got a better understanding of the Bolts & what Bolt fans are thinking going into the ECF. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did participating in it.

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Sean McCaffrey: Welcome everyone to another Point-Counterpoint here on DOINOW.com. First I was joined by Joe DiLeo, who talked his beloved Pittsburgh Penguins. He predicted the Rangers to win that series in 4. He was right. I was joined after that by Rob Parker, of JapersRink.com to talk the Capitals. He predicted the Rangers to win in 6. He was off by a game. Now, I’m joined by John Fontana, the editor of RAWCHARGE.com, a site that covers the Tampa Bay Lightning.


John has been writing about the Lightning since 2004. Not the best season for hockey, but alas, he’s been writing about the Bolts for 10+ years. John is just as passionate about the Bolts as I am the Rangers. Who better to discuss the Eastern Conference Finals with?


John first off, thank you for doing this. Your time is appreciated. Right off the bat, let’s put you on the spot. Rangers vs Bolts, who’s winning this series? What’s your prediction?

John Fontana: Here’s the thing: Tampa Bay swept the Rangers during the regular season, New York fans know this, but I like to make it a point that all playoff series start at 0. Nothing from the past is carted to this moment.

(Check this article out for more: http://www.rawcharge.com/2015/4/14/8412853/2015-nhl-playoffs-team-reputations-season-results-don-not-matter

 

What we did against the Blueshirts this season means squat, and let’s face it – that was November / December anyway.

I know the Lightning can be tenacious, frenzied, swarming… I’ve also play too safe and reserved during the Canadiens series. I think it hinges on that – if Tampa Bay plays their game, we’re moving on. If they play how they played in the Atlantic Division Finals all too often (and Henrik plays in net like he’s capable) then the Rangers can very well take this series. 

SM: NBC is definitely cashing in on this series. Ranger ratings are the highest they ever been, here in NY.  Does Pierre drive you nuts too?

I was at every Bolts vs Blueshirts at the Garden this year, trust me, I remember those losses. The Bolts just abused Lundqvist.

What makes me nervous about this series is that ex-Rangers have been scoring on the Rangers all season. Callahan, Del Zotto & Richards are just a small amount of names that have Game Winning Goals against the Rangers this season. Now the Rangers play the Tampa Bay Rangers, with Stralman, Boyle and Callahan. I’d be lying to say I’m confident this is going to be an easy series. Then again, is any playoff series easy with the Rangers?

That said, before we start, I’m letting you know, I’m going Rangers in 6 before our conversation. Maybe you will make me change my prediction by the end of this conversation.

Before the playoffs started, the one team I worried about were your Bolts. The Rangers really matched up well against everyone else, on paper. One thing that has me biting my nails is the fact that the Rangers turn every goalie into the second coming of Patrick Roy. Fleury & Holtby just finished playing the best hockey of their lives. For people who don’t know, what’s the deal with Ben Bishop? We know he’s a 6’7″ monster. What can Ranger fans expect? Is Bishop capable of stealing this series for the Bolts?

Tampa has a pretty good goalie too

JF: Lets go back to what I said to start remarks — about reset is applied here and that everything starts at zero.  Yeah, we smacked you guys around at the Garden, but we did worse to the Montreal Canadiens in the regular season. New York went oh-fer-three against TB?  Well, the Habs had a losing a finski against the Lightning; five time. Cinco. We started that series (as fans) thinking “Hey, it’s Montreal! Ha Ha Ha Ha!”  The way the Lightning played that series kept Montreal in it. Outside of one blowout and one convincing defeat where both teams were playing full on, everything was a knifes edge and could have gone the other way.

That’s why the Rangers shouldn’t walk into this with fear reflecting on what happened way back when. Especially seeing we’re starting this series with an afternoon game where the Bolts are horrible.  That being said.. if they play their game like you’ve seen them capable, Tampa Bay in 5.

Ben Bishop is the reason the Lightning series was kept on knife-edge with Montreal most of the time. He did get chased from game 4 (the flip side of back-to-back games). His season in general wasn’t as strong as his first in Tampa Bay but he’s capable of standing tall (figuratively; he’s got that quite literally and I don’t need to point it out)… He’s also capable of letting in that gaffe/weak one.. or suffering bored-goalie syndrome and letting in shots when he’s barely tested in a game (happened in round 1).

Can he steal a game? Yes, but it won’t be a shutout. He can keep Tampa Bay in a game that is close but it comes down to the team in front of him and what they’re doing at the other end.

Who won the trade?

SM: Does your radio personality call out the fans for being too quiet, like Rangers radio analyst Dave Maloney did this series?  On that topic, what should Ranger fans expect from Bolt fans during the games in Tampa?


I still don’t understand why TBL/MTL had a back-to-back scheduled. You would think it would be easy to just schedule games every other day. I think most teams struggle in the afternoon and it’s not just the Bolts.


As of right now, Lundqvist leads all goalies in SV% and GAA. Second in those categories? Bishop. As you said earlier, it could be a chess match.


Let’s hit the topic everyone will be talking about – the Callahan for MSL trade, the first ever captain-for-captain swap in NHL history. As a Rangers fan, I liked the trade. I thought the Rangers gave up too much, as I didn’t think they needed to sacrifice the picks and could’ve made a straight swap. If it wasn’t for MSL, the Rangers don’t make the Stanley Cup last year. For that alone, I think the Rangers won that trade, as I don’t know if that team with Callahan last year makes the Cup. However, if Callahan, this year, has a monster ECF and monster Cup Finals, then we can revisit that.


Callahan, Stralman & Brian Boyle will be cheered at the Garden, especially Callahan. What’s the reaction to Martin St. Louis on your end? How are Tampa enjoying the ex-Rangers? Did you like the trade? Do you think you’re better off with Cally than you were with MSL?

JF: I’ve never heard of Dave Mishkin taking fans to task about how loud or soft they are. That goes for his color analyst too… Phil Esposito. Point to make on Espo’s radio involvement – he had been doing just home games for the Lightning during the regular season. I’m not sure if that’s still the case for the playoffs.  I can tell you that Mishkin’s over-the-top antics does draw the ire of rival fans and media.

 
As for in Tampa we’re going to have to get away form fans here and remark about the arena experience. This’ll irk some Ranger fans: the Lightning have required all ticket buyers be state residents. They’ve also implemented dress-code policies at two posh clubs in Amalie Arena where you cannot enter while dawning apparel (or brandishing items) with the opposition logo on it.
 
Don’t get mad at me, I didn’t come up with the policy. That’s the franchise’s move. I don’t know the story behind it either, but that’s been in place all playoffs. 
 
As for fans in Tampa: I’ve always known them to be a good bunch of people (from the opposition stnadpoint).  There’s a fan group in the upper deck (sections 306 and 307) known as the Sticks of Fire Supporters Group who lead chants during games. They’re not the Garden Faithful yet but they’re growing.
 
What happened with the back-to-back games, I guess this event — the Nitro BMX tour — was locked in to it’s performance date. What gets me and pisses me off is the fact they canceled! a TV production issue stopped the show from ever going on. I don’t know what they required that made the NHL honor their event.
 
Marty… Marty… Marty… I’m still troubled by this. Let’s take a sec and touch on a fact that Martin St. Louis started this whole ball rolling with a request. Not a demand but a request. One that Steve yzerman didn’t have to honor by the deadline. Marty wanted one location and one alone with the Rangers so that limited market too. I never try to judge the trade from a traditional standpoint because the whole ordeal was not traditional. Especially because we (Lightning fans) didn’t expect it from Marty. 
 
Glen Sather must have lit up when he heard St. Louis wanted out and New York as his destination; the Rangers did have the upper hand as they didn’t have to give up squat for a player that had to be moved. In fact, Yzerman pulled this with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 when he obtained Simon Gagne for not much at all. But with what Marty offers (or offered in Tampa Bay when he was on his game) and what Ryan Callahan brings are so different and I think that’s where extra compensation comes in. To ge the deal done, it requires a little more.  Mind you, Cally will be around longer, but St. Louis brings an element to the locker room that can raise everyone.
 
I’m still pissed off it happened.That’s not on Callahan, Sather, the Rangers or Yzerman. It’s on someone who was the standard-bearer for the franchise who got upset for still unclear reasons (though the Olympics and a changing locker room are the usual suspects). 
 
Back in November there was a very big deal made about Marty coming back to Tampa for the November 26th game. There’s an element who cheered him, there’s an element who booed him.  I like Callahan and how he’s raised the penalty kill and responsible presence on ice for the Lightning… But that trade is painful in Lightning history. It was not something we sought or expected.

SM: It seems that the Rangers & the Lightning have had many familiar faces spend time in either organization, whether it’s Richards, MSL, Espo or Torts.

I have friends who live in Tampa. I was debating about going down for game 4, but the flights were ridiculous, money wise. However, I’m aware of Tampa’s policies with the tickets. I’m surprised some lawyer hasn’t went after them for that. Perhaps if the clubs didn’t have an “All-You-Can-Drink” special, you wouldn’t have to worry about what people are wearing. I’m just surprised, legally, they can get away discriminating against NHL customers.

I am glad to hear about a growing fanbase. Tampa is one of my favorite cities to visit. The times I’ve seen a Bolts home game, I had a good time and always found everyone fun to be around, even with some light razzing at the bars before the game.

For the reasons you stated, that’s why I figured the Rangers could do a straight swap for him. Yzerman had to make a deal and wasn’t going to get a better deal elsewhere. Even now, with MSL’s productivity falling tremendously from last year, I still think he will be back here, since he will play for the veterans minimum.

Callahan just had his appendix removed and is already practicing on the ice. There is no doubt in my mind he will be looking to have a huge series. There is no doubt in my mind that Callahan will be playing the best hockey he’s ever played in this series. The fans love him, but he has a chip on his shoulder with management. I’m hoping MSL will fire up the same way, although I suspect Cally is more made at the Rangers than MSL is at the Bolts.

Callahan coming back faster than Mats Zuccarello returning (if he comes back at all) is a bit nerve wracking. The Rangers, while a great team, miss Zuccarello’s energy out on the ice.

Two defensemen that have played for both teams are Dan Boyle & Anton Stralman. I will never understand for the life of me, why Sather wouldn’t give Stralman the $4.5 million a year, but gave it to Dan Boyle. Stralman is playing great like usual. Brian Boyle got crazy money to go to Tampa and the Rangers are in cap hell, how do you feel with him?

And while answering my barrage of questions, how about this one too: on a poll conducted on your site, 72% of TBL fans wanted to play the Rangers over the Caps. Is it all because TBL went 3-0 in the regular season?

Be careful what you wish for Bolt fans!

JF: The two organizations do share ties — I mean, Espo birthed the Lightning after all.  The Rangers have that ability to bring in players who have been excellent elsewhere (Dan Boyle is on that list… Dom Moore started in New York but played here too, Matt Gilroy played D on both our bluelines).

 
Other teams have pulled the “must be a state resident to acquire tickets” policy — Nashville among others.The dress policy pertaining to clubs can get by — clubs have dress codes. I couldn’t walk into most 5-star restaurants in Manhattan while just wearing sandals, shorts and a tank top, right? I couldn’t win a legal battle claiming discrimination.  The residence fight, though? I think there’s a legal debate to have that could hit the NHL in general, not specific teams (because the NHL doesn’t stop the policy).
 
I didn’t flesh out something full on the Marty-ally deal when I invoked Glen Sather. Yzerman was going to have to make the deal but nothing said he had to do it at the deadline. That’s where Yzerman both gets credit and Sather should take a degree of blame for what he gave up – Glen wanted St. Louis, probably for what you cited with leadership as well as what he was capable of.. And he wanted him now.  Nix the urgency from the buyers end, Yzerman could have just waited until both clubs were out of the playoffs. Glen wanted it done and paid the price to get it done.
 
I also want to rehash one word — request. It was never stated as a demand to be dealt.  Yzerman didn’t want to keep him around. Yzerman did have to move if he wanted Callahan. He probably would have gotten even less if he tried something in the off-season. Getting more, though, is on Slats.
 
I expected Marty to have the same kind of monster games against Tampa Bay (during the regular season) as you expect Cally to have now.  Not because of untapped emotion or the bone to pick alone… It’s what I saw him do for so many seasons with the Lightning. While Cally practiced (light skate, regular jersey) on Thursday, I do have a degree of doubt he’ll be in game 1; the Lightning have the depth to cover for his absence.  If he’s still impaired, eh won’t go.  If he’s ready… Look out.
 
In team history, we loved Dan boy and he got shafted — forced out by new ownership because Len Barrie (par towner) played with Dan and hated his guts. That being said, there’s no comparison between Dan and Stralman. From rumors I heard, stuff from Anton himself, the club didn’t even reach out to him about a new deal? They just let him walk?  Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot?  He’s played Norris Trophy worthy hockey (stable, contributing on offense if not via goals).
 
Brian Boyle is another one. While he’s playing bottom-six roles, he’s a “I can do it everywhere” type of guy in the lineup. He’s played top-6 on Steven Stamkos’ wing, power play time, penalty kill time, center, wing, great on the PK. We traded a fan-favorite bottom-6 guy in Nate Thompson to clear space for Brian and I’m just fien with it with how Boyle’s fit in.

SM: I think it’s a matter of time before some lawyer looking to make a name for himself takes up the cause. You just expect it.


I agree, I blame Sather for giving up too much. Then again, if Rangers beat the Kings last year, it wouldn’t matter what they gave up.


MSL has been slow these playoffs and hasn’t looked the same. He’s been somewhat a shell of his former self. I love Marty and glad he’s here, but he’s had so many near chances that he normally converted in the past. Hopefully he does spark up for the Bolts.


The Stralman exit drives me insane. For what he got in Tampa, he could’ve stayed here. I have no clue why Sather thought Dan Boyle was better for this team than Stralman. Boyle has been a bust for the Rangers this year, despite the Game Winning Goal in Game 6.


Brian Boyle seems to always play better in the playoffs than the regular season. Rangers know that and will hopefully be ready.


Tell me about the Triplet line and talk about the awesomeness of Johnson. Can the Rangers top D-men, in Girardi & McDonagh slow him down? Also, why do you think your readers wanted the Rangers over the Capitals in this round?

Tyler Johnson leads the Triplet Line for TB

JF: To  touch on Stralman, who got the contract extension on D during the season? I remember the media lighting up on Twitter and citing the Stralman exit. “They kept him but left Anton walk. Note that, people.”  

 
I hate the nickname “Triplets” that head coach Jon Cooper labeled his second line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov in October.  The local media latch on to it and repeated it. I could never stand it.  I tend to call them the “TKO Trio” but that has never gone far and wide. They are an offensive knock-out though.  
 
The line starts with the tandem of Palat and Johnson (left wing and center) who have been playing together since 2011-12 in the AHL and have been producing. It’s the chemistry element that has just been working for years. Nikita Kucherov is on the right wing and while he comes off like a throw-in element in how I’m presenting this, he’s the sniper, the still-developing beat of the three.  The line made a name for itself because of Kucherov adjsusting to North America (he didn’t know much or any English when he joined the Lightning in November 2013).
 
Palat and Johnson have also been under Cooper’s guidance since 2011-12 in the AHL, that’s part of why that line is such a factor in his games.
 
All three can get you, all three are known to feed the others. Some teams do a great job limiting one or another and yet it’s the other two who click just fine and light the lamp.  Girardi and McDonagh are going to have to deal with speed with Johnson, versatility from Palat, and just a total package of awesome from Kucherov (who proably would have been a 1st round draft choice in 2011 if he wasn’t Russian).
 

The poll results might be inspired by the regular-season record for Tampa Bay over the Rangers, it might come down to how well Lightning fans feel they match up with the Rangers.  That’s the argument I’ve heard most often – Tampa Bay being better or just more evenly matched.  Tampa Bay didn’t win the Presidents’ Trophy though… Just sayin’. 

 

SM: The Rangers re-signed Marc Staal last year, and have also nailed down Girardi & McDonagh to long-term deals.


Johnson is playing like he wants that Conn Smythe award.


As we wind it down a bit, let’s look at the star power on both teams. On one side, you have the great Steven Stamkos, who once played under the watchful eye of MSL. Stamkos won’t be Ovi, but he’s player that can make you say “OOOOOOH” and cringe a bit when he winds up to shoot. On the flip-side you have Rick Nash, who is not playing bad, but not scoring the way you think he should be. Nash has even been compared to “A-Rod” for not coming up big in in the playoffs. Nash looked great in Games 6 & 7, even scoring a rare goal in Game 6, before being stoned by Holtby 6 times in Game 7. Can Nash turn it around and get open looks against this Tampa defense?


I believe the Rangers defense, who have been playing phenomenally all playoffs, will be able to give the Rangers an advantage this series. Can Tampa gruel and grind out 1 goal games?  

 

MSL & Stamkos were good friends on and off the ice.

JF: John sort of went quiet late in the series after roaring at other point against Montreal. He has been playing Conn Smythe worthy hockey.  Kucherov hasn’t been that distant from him (Johnson has 8 goals and 4 assists while Kuch is 2nd on the Lightning with 6 goals and 5 assists)

 
Stamkos hasn’t been himself in the playoffs either. There were spans without a goal, then a stretch without even a shot. I think, regarding Stamkos and Nash, there could be underlying issues like an injury that either or both players could be playing through. Stammer does have 3 more points than Nash (3 goals, 7 assists as to 2 goals, 5 assists) in one less game played. Either guy turning it on goal-scoring wise is nice, but enabling their linemates is another thing. Stamkos has gotten production from Alex Killorn on his left side (while Ryan Callahan, on the right, has been mostly quiet in the playoffs with only 3 assists).  Have the guys playing with Rick looked the part, especially in the latter games you cited where he’s looked better?
 
As for the gruel/grind out 1 goal games, 3 of the 6 games in the Montreal series were just that — 2-1 affairs where the Lightning went (ta da!) 2-1.  2 out of the seven games against Detroit in the first round were 1-goal affairs with those games being split even.
 
Really, they can play those tight games, but as they generally go the results are a coin-flip. 
SM: Depending on how it shakes out, Johnson is right there in the Conn Smythe running.

In the case of Nash, he’s getting good looks, taking his shots, but Holtby was amazing. Nash’s line mates have been playing well, they just aren’t scoring like they should. I’m wondering if Coach Vigneault, who has a good relationship with Detroit’s Mike Babock will get any advice from him for this series. After all, it was Babock who suggested to AV to put Nash on the penalty kill last year (That’s what Babock wanted to do with Nash in the Olympics) and it worked. Detroit looked pretty damn close to eliminating TB in the first round (That Game 5, ouch) so perhaps it wouldn’t hurt AV to put in a call!

With the Rangers & Lightning not really being that physical and both playing one goal games, I’m expecting more of the same in this Eastern Conference Finals.

For the Rangers, the greatest strengths in the team are their resolve. This is a team that came back from 3-1, in consecutive years, in the second round. They’ve been to 3 ECF in three out of the last four years. They know how to win big games. The defense is strong. The goalie is great. The PK is amazing. The Rangers are weak with their PP, winning faceoffs and always overpass the puck, looking for the perfect shot, rather than just shooting.

Heading into this series, what are the strengths and weaknesses of The Bolts?
If Rick Nash could put it altogether, the Rangers will win the Cup

JF: “Alain, I know I should be professional and help a friend out but I’ll tell you what… Get me sound advice on where I should coach and I’ll give you some information on getting Jon Cooper’s team to crack.  C’mon, fair trade…”

 
Before I get to the Lightning’s strengths/weaknesses, I do want to remark that the pass-first thing was a constant and troubling issue with the Lightning while #26 paraded with the team here in TB. While I can’t claim he brought the issue with him, it’s just an odd coincidence I had to remark on.
 
The biggest weakness of the Lightning has been their power play unit. This goes back to the regular season; things were just much too weak for a team as potent as the Bolts on offense. The PK is sound, solid and a plus for the Lightning, their speed kills. 
 
One obstruction is not being able to carry the puck into the zone efficiently, that’ll be something to look out for from the Rangers – stopping it, or never letting it start. The speed aspect does make dump-and-chase a tactic used but eh… Stamkos has never been known for great faceoff play, keep an eye on Vtteri Filppula on the offense though (he’s also played with Stamkos, centering him, recently)
 
The Bolts have a frenzied offensive attack when they’re on, swarming and dumping pressure down their opponents throat. They’ve had shooting issues like you cited for the Rangers but obviously from the results (for both teams) they’ve overcome them.  
SM: That sounds like a good trade to me!

Marty is far from the only person who overpasses on the team. Brassard, Stepan, Zuccarello, Boyle, Yandle, Hagelin, they all do it.

It seems like we got a great series starting on Saturday. I’m really looking forward to it and reading your coverage, from your angle, before/after these games.

Is there anything else you would like to say about this series or plug anything to the DOINOW.com readers?

And lastly, are you ready to make a firm prediction on this series?

JF: Well, I didn’t expect Marty to be doing it alone but telling guys to look for certain aspects before taking a shot… Who knows where the over-pass habit comes form? 

 
I think I’ve pestered your readers enough here with my long winded rhetoric. I do hope for a great series without garbage getting in the way and taking focus off the games themselves.  They’re two sound clubs; I want to see a classic match, not a fodder-for the-tabloids series.

 

The most solid aspect (prediction) I’ll make is that i don’t think this series goes 7 games. Both teams have dug holes and escaped them in the 2015 playoffs.  This time around… Someone is not going to be so lucky to dig out of it.

SM: Thank you so much for your time today John, it is appreciated and I got a better understanding of your Bolts. Let’s hope for a clean series and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it here…..
LET’S GO RANGERS
Sean McCaffrey
BULLSMC@aol.com
@NYCTHEMIC on the twitter machine.

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