As the Pittsburgh Penguins prepare for their first-round matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, one thing is clear: They have to score and they have to score now.
Since the loss of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to injury, Pittsburgh has obviously struggled to find its scoring touch. New acquisition James Neal is buzzing, but has been unable to produce on the score sheet thus far. Alex Kovalev has also failed to set the world on fire just yet, but no one expected him to.
However, there is one big reason why the Penguins' lack of offensive will not hurt them and that's Marc-Andre Fleury. The Pens goaltender has been spectacular this year, keeping Pittsburgh in games and making phenomenal saves when the team needed them the most.
The Lightning roll into town boasting one of the best powerplays in the league and "The Greatest Player on Earth Until We Find Someone Else" Steven Stamkos. Even though St. Louis was the leading points producer, Stamkos is the guy who the Lightning expect to get it done.
However, none of that matters. The Penguins are going to win and here's why:
With everyone healthy, Pittsburgh probably has the best blue-line corps in the league. Kris Letang misses Crosby, but is still an offensive threat every time he touches the puck.
Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek are great shutdown guys who frustrate opposing forwards to no end. Paul Martin might have a soft shot but his passing is second to none and he has great positioning most of the time.
At the bottom of the lineup, the Reverend Ben Lovejoy has been a pleasant surprise while Deryk Engelland and Matt Niskanen are very serviceable six and seven guys.
Every single shift in a playoff game has an impact on the series at large. Hits that are made in Game 2 will be felt in Game 7. If the Pens defense can frustrate and hit the Lightning forwards early and often, it's going to impact their offense the entire series.
Former Penguin Ryan Malone will camp out in front of the net while St. Louis and Stamkos find their shots by the circles, so it's going to be on the defense to get things done in their own end. I firmly believe that they will have little trouble doing that.
It's no secret that the Tampa Bay team thrives on it's powerplay. Stamkos was being touted as the next Mike Bossy earlier in the year, his stats were propped up by the power play.
Stamkos has an absolutely wicked slap shot that can get by even the most seasoned goaltender, so it's not exactly a secret that the Pens are going to try and stop that.
However, the Penguins have one of, if not then, best penalty kills in the league. The loss of Matt Cooke to suspension will certainly hurt but players like Max Talbot, Craig Adams, Pascal Dupuis and Brooks Orpik are good enough to shut down any man advantage.
If the Pens can shut down the Lightning powerplay (and their track record says they can), Tampa is in real trouble.
As mentioned before, Marc-Andre Fleury has been stellar for the Penguins for months now. The team MVP posted a 2.32 GAA to go along with his .918 save percentage, keeping the Penguins in the hunt during their injury troubles.
Dwayne Roloson, on the other hand, was brought in to shore up a position on the Lightning where they have struggled to find consistency.
Mike Smith was simply not getting the job done and the 41-year-old Roloson was brought in seemingly in desperation. While he's been decent enough, he has a losing record this season and got chased by the Penguins earlier this year.
Going into the playoffs, the last thing you want is to have shaky goaltending. The Penguins are extremely confident in their netminder while the Lightning are just hoping theirs doesn't screw up too badly. In any event, I would take Fleury over Roloson seven days a week and twice on Sunday.
The Pittsburgh Penguins can hang with anyone in a seven-game series. They have the playoff experience, the grinding players and a coach who always is on top of things. The Lightning are not going to be a pushover, but the Penguins will pull through in the end.
If they are ready for the second round, however, is a completely different story altogether.
Penguins in six.