The Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning have never faced each other beyond the NHL's regular season. Pittsburgh is in the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year, while the Lightning have turned things around and are back playing postseason hockey for the first time since 2007.
Sidney Crosby is the X-factor in this series. No one knows if he'll return at all, but if he does, that would swing considerable momentum in the favor the Penguins. Tampa will have to improve upon its defensive play and try and break through one of the NHL's stingiest defenses if it is to advance.
Without their top stars in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, do the Penguins have enough to get past Tampa and their offensive studs Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier?
Wednesday, April 13 Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh 7 p.m.
Friday, April 15 Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh 7 p.m.
Monday, April 18 Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, April 20 Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay 7 p.m.
*Saturday, April 23 Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh TBD
*Monday, April 25 Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay TBD
*Wednesday, April 27 Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh TBD
All times Eastern
You can't talk about the Penguins forwards without bringing up the absences of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Without two of the offensive leaders of the team, Pittsburgh will have a tough time matching Tampa Bay's firepower. In Crosby and Malkin's place, guys like Jordan Staal (30 points, 42 games), Chris Kunitz (23 goals) and Tyler Kennedy (career high 21 goals) have supplied ample production. Newbies James Neal (one goal, 20 games) and Alexei Kovalev (two goals, 20 games) have yet to get going since joining the Penguins and will be counted on.
The Lightning own two of the NHL's top-five scorers in Martin St. Louis (99 points) and Steven Stamkos (45 goals, 91 points). Vincent Lecavalier (25 goals) had a bounce-back season and has reminded us of the Vinny of old. Tampa has also received good production from some of its depth forwards in Nate Thompson (25 points) and Dominic Moore (18 goals). Secondary scorers Simon Gagne (40 points), Ryan Malone (38 points) and Steve Downie (32 points) have battled injuries, but chipped in when healthy.
Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero's goal during the offseason was to improve a defense that was 20th in the NHL with 235 goals against. He did just that by adding Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek early in free agency. Those two stalwarts on the backend (along with MVP-caliber goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury) helped the Penguins cut their goals against to 196 (199 if you want to count shootout losses), good for sixth overall. Kris Letang was in the Norris Trophy discussion for part of the year and while he fell out of the conversation over the past month, he did take major steps in his development with his best season yet. Ben Lovejoy, Derek Engelland and Matt Niskanen round out Pittsburgh's defensive depth with veteran Brooks Orpik the leader of the pack.
Tampa Bay, on the other hand, has struggled on defense and finished 21st in goals allowed with 234. It's managed to cut the number of goals allowed in each of the past two seasons, but there's still work to be done. Since bringing in Eric Brewer, Tampa has only allowed more than two goals six times in the 22 games since he was acquired from St. Louis -- something it had done four times in the six games before he arrived, so the progress is there.
After a rough October, Marc-Andre Fleury rebounded so strongly that his name has been brought up in the Vezina and Hart Trophy discussions at times since. Fleury put up career bests in goals allowed (143) and goals against average (2.32). He'll be busy up against Tampa's big guns.
When Dan Ellis and Mike Smith struggled, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman pulled the trigger and brought in 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson to settle the goaltending situation. The move worked. Roloson was 18-12-4 with a 2.52 goals against average and .912 save percentage since coming over on Jan. 1, and his past experiences in being a catalyst for playoff upsets could bode well for the Lightning.
Did you know Tampa Bay is "Hockey Paradise"?
Rightfully garnering attention in the Jack Adams Award race, Dan Bylsma lost his two big dogs and managed to guide the Penguins to within a single point of an Atlantic Division crown. He gets the most out of his players with a calm demeanor.
In his first season behind the bench, Guy Boucher orchestrated a 23-point improvement and helped the Lightning return to respectability after two years under the OK Hockey ownership group. Like Bylsma, the Lightning players have responded to his direction, though he may not be as calm at times as his coaching counterpart.
Despite the their magnitude of stars, the Penguins have struggled on the power play and finishing 25th in the NHL (15.8 percent) this season continued that trend. On the flip side, Pittsburgh's defensive upgrades have vaulted their penalty kill to an NHL-best 86.1 percent success rate. The Penguins are also dangerous on the kill having finished tied for second in the league with 13 shorthanded goals.
The Lightning haven't had such problems with their offensive talent with the extra man. Cashing in at a 20.5 percent clip, Pittsburgh might want to just station one of its defensemen in the "Stamkos Spot" (17 PPGs) at all times on the penalty kill. Meanwhile, Tampa has been almost as effective shorthanded killing off 83.8 percent of power plays, good for eighth in the NHL.
Outfit yourself this season with the official Pittsburgh Penguins white-out T-shirt...
...or the official Tampa Bay Lightning players tee with a message that basically sums up how the team is approaching these playoffs:
A healthy Sidney Crosby returning to the Penguins lineup would do wonders for their postseason chances, but Dan Bylsma and crew are approaching the playoffs as if their star captain won't be back -- while Guy Boucher is planning for a Crosby return. That loss of offense, coupled with Pittsburgh's inability to close games out in regulation (15 of their last 41 went to overtime or a shootout) could prove deadly against the Lightning. Fleury will need to continue putting up MVP numbers if the Penguins are to advance.
If Tampa is able to play well defensively and its big horses show up in its first playoff appearance since 2007, it should be able to edge the Penguins.
Prediction - Lightning in seven.