Penguins vs. Lightning: Eastern Conference Finals Preview

The Penguins vs. Capitals series was another one that will be remembered for a long time. Especially game 6, which had a heavy dose of drama and heart attacks, but the Pens prevailed. They sent the President’s Trophy winners home in six games. It’s a great memory, to remember beating the rival Capitals on Bonino’s rebound goal, at home in front of arguably the best crowd ever at Consol Energy Center. It’s a night that Penguins fans will remember forever. It’s a night the Penguins themselves will, and should, celebrate. But that’s not what this team is about. They showed their resiliency yet again, and that says a lot about how this team goes forward. While it’s a great memory to send the Capitals home, the Penguins have won 8 games. They need to win 8 more. And you know this team has that in their minds. They’re halfway to their goal. Now the Tampa Bay Lightning stand in their path.

This is an interesting playoff matchup. Now that the Penguins are out of the Metropolitan portion of the bracket, they face the Atlantic survivor, the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s not against a team fans hate. Where is all the angst going to go? It’s also an interesting matchup because they play a very similar style hockey as the Penguins. They attack you with their speed. They had little problems in the first two rounds, beating the Red Wings and Islanders each in five games. And they’ve done it without their captain and highly skilled goal scorer Steven Stamkos. Much like I did for my Pens/Caps preview, I’ll break down this preview with three keys for this series, along with my X-factor for the Penguins, and of course, my prediction for the series. Not to blow smoke or brag, but I nailed both of the Penguins’ series so far with my predictions. I hope to keep that going. First off, here’s a quick recap of how the Penguins get here, along with some noteworthy points for this series:

  • The Penguins ride into this series having won 22 of their last 27 games, including their 8-3 record in the playoffs. They also haven’t lost back to back games since January 15th, ironically enough, against Tampa Bay (5-4 OTL).
  • The team has been as resilient as they come, bouncing back from either bad periods or bad games, and responding immediately. When they have a bad period and fall behind 2-0, they come back and win. Or even if they lose a game, they bounce back the next game and win it. They don’t allow adversity keep them down. They’re also 44-0-0 when leading after two periods.
  • They are as sound of a team as I’ve seen in recent memory. All four lines contribute, all six defensemen fill a role and execute it well. Depth guys like Matt Cullen, Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, and Nick Bonino have raised their game and made this team hard to play against. Teams can’t just prepare to shut down Crosby and Malkin. The depth on this team proves that.
  • The Penguins have home ice for this series thanks to a superior regular season record. Both teams finished second in their respective divisions.
  • The only playoff matchup between these teams in history was in 2011. Pittsburgh had a 3-1 series lead, then Tampa Bay came back and won three in a row, clinching the series with a 1-0 victory in game 7 at Consol Energy Center.
  • The Penguins regular season record against Tampa Bay this season was 0-2-1, two of the games in Tampa Bay. All three games were under Mike Sullivan’s regime. Matt Murray did not play against Tampa Bay. Fleury was 0-1-1 and Zatkoff was 0-1-0.

Three Keys to the Series:
Star Power
The Penguins played well against the Capitals, despite their two main stars producing a combined total of four points in six games. Crosby and Malkin need to find their scoring touch in this series. The depth of the Penguins is amazing. The Penguins’ “third line” has been their best line since it was put together when Malkin went down with an injury in March. But imagine what this team would do when all three lines (Crosby’s, Malkin’s, and the HBK line) are lighting the lamp. They would literally be unstoppable. Ben Bishop is a good goaltender and plays a similar style to Lundqvist, but Sid and Geno need to find a way to put the puck in the net themselves. They’re both at their best when they create shots for themselves. Right now, they are both deferring to the pass way too much. Creating shots for yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you always have to shoot the puck, but if you try to create the shot for yourself. passing lanes open up. If Crosby and Malkin can get it going on the score sheet, there isn’t any reason why the Penguins can’t win this series. Tampa Bay is without their best player. Pittsburgh’s had better outshine Tampa’s stars. This is what they make the big bucks for. Malkin historically has played well against Tampa Bay. Let’s hope we see more of this:


Need for Speed
The Lightning are a fast team. The Penguins are also fast. Very fast. Lightning fast, if you will (pun intended). It will be a fast-paced series. Neither team bangs the body too much. They can when they want, but it’s not their game. A team like Washington relied on their ability to wear down their opponent with their size and physicality. Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay don’t do that. They attack you with all the speed they have. It is very close, but I believe the Penguins have a slight edge in overall speed. When they are in full attack mode (as they were in game 6 against Washington), they are very hard to slow down. Tampa has speed to keep up with them, but logic might dictate that the Penguins may have a little more ice to work with in this series. Tampa doesn’t try to wear you down like Washington. That’s where you may see the Penguins skill excel. When given open ice, even just a bit of breathing room, the speed mixed with the skill the Penguins have is hard to contain. The Penguins need to emphasize their speed game and create chances in the offensive zone with it. There’s no other way to play Penguin hockey right now. It’s all about that speed.

Goaltender Situation
This will be a hot topic in Pittsburgh for the next few days. Who starts in net? Do you keep going with Murray’s hot hand or do you put Fleury back in the number one role? It’s a tough choice. I understand not going with Fleury in the middle of a series. He hasn’t played in over a month, and Murray is playing out of his mind. But now, it’s the start of a new series. In my opinion, I would continue to go with Murray. He’s earned it. Fleury is still fantastic and I would trust him if Murray’s game were to slip. The goal right now is to win a Stanley Cup. Murray is arguably the team’s MVP through the first two series. He’s stolen a game for you. He’s made the saves needed by a goalie to be successful in the playoffs. There’s no reason to change that now. I think Murray plays the rest of the playoffs until he loses the job, which I don’t think he will. I think he continues the strong play. He’s just a dang good goalie.

My X-factor for this series is Evgeni Malkin. I fully expect the two stars to bounce back from a rough series (at least, in regards to the score sheet) against Washington. But Geno, when he gets going and get on one of his rolls, nobody can stop him. Anyone remember the 2009 Conference Finals? Yeah, that’s what can happen. Don’t get me wrong. Tampa is a much better team than that ’09 Carolina team, but like I said, if Geno takes over like that, he’ll make them look like the ’09 Hurricanes.


Injury Update:
The Penguins (knock on wood as hard and often as you can) are considerably healthy. Fleury is game ready now. The only player that seems to be affected by any kind of lingering injury is Olli Maatta. He just doesn’t seem himself. For Tampa Bay, they are without two of their keys guys that they would LOVE to have in this series: Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. There’s a possibility Stralman gets into his series, but I don’t see Stamkos making it in, despite what Stamkos or Tampa Bay might say. He’s still on blood thinners. I don’t see it happening. Tampa has done a great job in filling in for the injuries. Nikita Kucherov leads the league in goals cored in the playoffs. Jonathan Drouin has looked really strong for them as well. But, they’d still be much better with Stamkos. And the Stralman absence really hurts their depth at defense. Victor Hedman is a beast, but that Tampa defense is a lot more scary when Hedman and Stralman are playing.

Tampa Bay is good. They play a style of hockey that is necessary to win in the playoffs. They’re two biggest assets are speed and skill. Unfortunately for them, the Penguins play almost the same exact style. And the Penguins have more speed and more skill. I expect Malkin to have a big series. The HBK line will continue to be the best line in hockey. Murray plays the entire series and continues his great run in the net. This won’t be an easy series. Give credit where credit is due. Tampa Bay is a good team. Eastern Conference Champions last year, and they made it back to the Conference Finals this year without their captain down the stretch, but I just think Pittsburgh is too good at the same game Tampa plays.

Penguins in six. Then on to the Stanley Cup Finals!


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