One of the more intriguing matchups in the Stanley Cup Playoffs features the fourth-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins against the fifth-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning. Both teams finished the regular season smoking hot as Pittsburgh won eight of their last 10 while Tampa Bay won seven of their last eight.
The Penguins nearly overtook the Philadelphia Flyers for the Atlantic Division title despite playing without mega-stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins changed their philosophy of being a finesse, high-scoring team to a tough, hard-nosed defensive club.
The Lightning, meanwhile, come in with the star power in Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Ryan Malone and Simon Gagne but lack the playoff experience and defense of their counterparts.
Will the Penguins have enough scoring power to stay with the high-powered Lightning? Can Tampa Bay solve Marc Andre Fleury? Can't 41-year-old Lightning netminder Dwayne Roloson hold up?
Let's dig down deep into this evenly matched first round matchup.
Regular Season series: Tied at two
There was a time when the Pittsburgh Penguins were one of the most feared offensive attacks in hockey. Having one of the best players in the world will do that. The loss of Sidney Crosby on January 5th to a hit by Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman has been devastating to the Penguins' offensive punch. Add the loss of fellow sniper Evgeni Malkin and few bullets remained in the chamber for Pittsburgh.
Despite playing in just 41 games, Crosby still led the Penguins with 66 points and 32 goals. No other Penguin surpassed Chris Kunitz's 23. Kunitz's 48 points was only surpassed by defenseman Kris Letang's 50 points.
In the 41 games without Crosby, the Penguins have seen their goals per game average plummet to 2.34 goals per game.
Crosby still has not been cleared for contact practices, and it's unlikely he'll be available to start the series. Even if he returns, is there any guarantee he will be the same player? Even with all the practices and conditioning drills, Crosby will go from missing 41 games to be thrust into the high impact non-stop action of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Pittsburgh added veterans Alexi Kovalev and James Neal to help out, but their arrival hasn't translated to much production thus far.
The Lightning would like to remind Penguin fans that their hockey club isn't the only one to suffer through major injuries this season. Key goal scorers Vincent Lecavalier, Steve Downie, Ryan Malone and Simon Gagne all missed time with injuries for Tampa Bay.
Despite the man-games lost, the Lightning still managed to finish eighth in the NHL in scoring, averaging 2.94 goals a game.
Tampa Bay had 10 double-digit goal scorers, two 90-plus point scorers and two other players over 50 points.
The Lightning boast scoring depth—not all the work is on the shoulders of Steven Stamkos. Stop Stamkos and you have to contend with Marty St. Louis. Get Marty Mouse under control and you have to take care of Vincent Lecavalier. Secure Lecavalier and you have to deal with Simon Gagne. Rub out Gagne and you have both Ryan Malone and Steve Downie reeking havoc in front of the net. We haven't even discussed Teddy Purcell, who is having his best year as an NHL player.
Needless to say, the Penguins defense has their work cut out for them.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay struggled keeping the puck out their own net this season, ranking 21st in the NHL in goal against (2.85 GAA). Still, Tampa Bay boasts a veteran-laden core that has logged many minutes in playoff hockey. Trade deadline acquisition Eric Brewer and second-year former first-round pick Victor Hedman man the top two of the defense corps. Veterans Pavel Kubina, Brett Clark, Randy Jones and Mattais Ohlund round out their defense.
Pittsburgh counters with one of the best defensive crews in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins tied for 6th in the league in GAA (2.39). Pittsburgh is led by Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang, who along with Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, and Zybnek Michalek make you fight for every inch of the offensive zone.
When Sidney Crosby went down, the Penguins knew they couldn't rely on their offense to win games for them. Luckily for them, Marc-Andre Fleury remains between the pipes. Fleury has put together a terrific year for the Pens, going 36-20-5 while posting a sparkling 2.32 goals against average and 3 shutouts. Fleury is particular tough on home ice, where he was 20-12-2 with a 2.17 GAA.
When Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman acquired 41-year-old netminder Dwayne Roloson from the NY Islanders on New Year's Day, he solidified possibly the one piece that would prevent the Lightning from becoming a serious contender. Roloson has responded with a solid performance. In 34 games with the Bolts, he posted an 18-12-4 record with a respectable 2.56 GAA, a .912 save percentage and four shutouts.
The Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves in the top eight of the league in both power play and penalty kill. Tampa Bay is sixth on the power play converting 20.5 percent of their chances. They ranked eighth on the penalty kill, successfully killing 83.8 percent of attempts.
Without Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh's power play has suffered, ranking 25th in the NHL. The Penguins converted just 15.8 percent of their chances. They balance that out though with the best penalty kill in the league. Pittsburgh boasts an impressive 86.1 percent of attempts on the kill while scoring 13 shorthanded goals.
Shorthanded goals could become a factor as Tampa Bay has given up a league leading 16 goals.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Keys to Victory
- Steven, Where Art Though? The Lightning desperately need to see Steven Stamkos shake out of his second-half slump and become the dynamic sniper they know he can be.
- Pittsburgh needs to tilt the ice. The Lightning can get bottled up in their own end at times—it will be pretty much impossible for the Tampa Bay snipers to do damage from their own zone.
- Rollin'. Dwayne Roloson has a history of being able to take a team on their back and lead them to the Stanley Cup Final—can he do it at age 41?
- Shorties. When the Lightning are on the power play, they cannot afford to give up any shorthanded goals. Tampa Bay was one of the worst at giving up shorties while the Pittsburgh was among the league leaders in scoring shorthanded goals.
- Home Sweet Home. Both teams are great both home and away, the team that defends their home ice the best will win the series.
The Lightning will win if...
Tampa Bay's scorers come to the party. If the Lightning are putting the puck in the net, Pittsburgh cannot score with them.
The Penguins will win if...
Pittsburgh can keep the Lightning bottled up in their own end, limiting the Lightning's chances to attack their top notch defense and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Will he or won't he? Will Sidney Crosby return to the lineup for the Penguins? Frankly, I don't care. I don't think Crosby will make much of an impact after this long of a layoff. Really, this series will come down to the irresistible force and the immovable object. The Lightning will have to find ways through that superb Pittsburgh defense—perhaps on the power play.
In the end, the Lightning have too much depth for the depleted Penguins to go the distance. That's not to say Pittsburgh won't compete—I expect each game will be an amazing fight down to the wire. Both teams were terrific in one-goal games, so there's not really an advantage for either team there.
I think Stamkos comes to life, the Lightning will get the secondary scoring they need and Dwayne Roloson will make enough saves for Tampa Bay to pull out this tough series.
Prediction: Tampa Bay in Six.