The Tampa Bay Lightning are talented, rugged and playoff tested. As the two-time defending champions, they possess a rare understanding of what it takes to carry the Stanley Cup around the rink — twice in two years.
But Barclay Goodrow, the Rangers forward, is also talented, rugged and playoff tested. And he is a two-time defending champion, as well.
Goodrow played for the Lightning in 2020 and 2021 and helped them win those Cups. His experience in that winning venture is part of what made Rangers General Manager Chris Drury sign Goodrow as a free agent last summer. Goodrow was given a six-year, $21.8-million contract, in part, to add an intangible, but essential, winning ingredient to a team preparing to make deep playoff runs.
“That, for sure, was a big piece of it,” Drury said on Tuesday at the Rangers’ practice facility while explaining why he wanted Goodrow, who was originally signed by the San Jose Sharks in 2014.
Drury added, “What he’s gone through, what he went through in San Jose, on and off the ice, and what a character player he was, and the things he could do, not only in the playoffs but in the regular season to help create, build and keep a culture. He’s done everything possible to do that.”
Beginning on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, Goodrow will turn that experience and talent back on his old team as the Rangers open the Eastern Conference finals against the Lightning.
Goodrow, 29, is an example to the younger players, and perhaps some veterans, too, of what it takes to win at the highest level. But he was equally attracted to the Rangers for what they were building.
“I saw the potential and the trajectory this team has been on,” Goodrow said. “They drafted well with so many talented players that you see in these playoffs coming into their own and becoming great players. I saw that potential and it seemed like a perfect fit for myself.”
The Lightning have a locker room full of players like Goodrow, and one of them is defenseman Ryan McDonagh, a former Ranger stalwart and the Blueshirts’ last captain.
At any Rangers game, it is common to see fans wearing McDonagh’s No. 27 jersey in vivid blue, white and red, with a “C” on the chest. (The team has not named a captain since trading McDonagh in 2018). In Tampa, Fla., many Lightning fans still own white and blue shirts with Goodrow’s name on them.
They were never traded for one another, but they have flipped places, each bringing a measure of character-based leadership so prized in N.H.L. locker rooms, and on the ice.
Chris Kreider, a veteran forward and the Rangers’ leading goal-scorer this season, suggested that McDonagh’s example helped establish the foundation on which the current team has been built. McDonagh helped tutor Kreider, and Kreider has helped tutor many of the younger players on the current roster, all of whom have been instrumental in carrying the Rangers farther than expected this year.
“Mac is one of the best humans I’ve ever played with,” Kreider said. “I learned so much from him about how to be a pro, how to conduct yourself on and off the ice. There are a number of things he did for our group when he was here. It’s a very, very long list. He was our example of what it meant to be a Ranger, and he’s been instrumental for them and all the success they’ve had.”
A tough, left-handed defenseman, McDonagh, 32, played for the Rangers from 2010 until he was traded to the Lightning in 2018 as part of an overarching plan to revamp the team with younger players. The trade also helped build the Lightning into the team it is, too.
“That was the first piece going forward in becoming the team we are today,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “He’s a leader on this team. When you think about that past playoff series, he was one of our best, if not our best player.”
McDonagh was also a big part of the last Rangers team to go to the Stanley Cup finals, in 2014, and played on the Rangers squad that was eliminated by the Lightning in Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference finals, quashing the Rangers’ hopes of going back to the finals and winning the Cup.
Kreider called it “poetic” that the teams will meet in the same round this year, too. This time, he will not have McDonagh to lean on, but Tampa Bay will not have Goodrow, who might have stayed in Tampa if the Lightning had more salary-cap space.
“We knew we were going to lose some players that contributed to two Stanley Cups and were greatly appreciated by me, by the coaches, the other players and by our fans,” Lightning General Manager Julien BriseBois said. “We know that was going to be a loss. But we also went into the off-season with the idea of trying to win some more.”
The Goodrow-McDonagh convergence is one of several intriguing subplots to the series, including the matchup of two coaches with deep respect for one another. The Rangers’ Gerard Gallant was an assistant to the Lightning’s Jon Cooper for Canada at the 2017 world championships. The series also features a matchup of the two best goalies in the N.H.L.: the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin.
There is also the issue of rest vs. rhythm. The Rangers have been playing to a steady beat of basically one game every other day for two weeks, through two tough, seven-game series. That conga line of games began May 3.
The Lightning, on the other hand, may have to shake off rust. Tampa Bay swept the Florida Panthers in the second round and the players have not been in a competitive game since May 23. When they take the ice at the Garden on Wednesday, they will have had eight days between games.
But for a team that has played in more games over the past three seasons than any other team (the same is true for Goodrow), a rest was welcome.
“If there was any year we could have used this break, this was the year,” Cooper said. “We are thankful we got it. We earned it. But now we’ve got to do something with it. That’s our next step.”