While it came down to the final weekend of the NHL season, it came as no surprise that the Pittsburgh Penguins would be facing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs.
Of all the first-round matchups, I find this one to be the most intriguing and not just because of my black and gold loyalty.
I’ve thought long and hard about this series and nothing I have come up with points to a short series. This could very easily come down to a decisive Game 7 at CONSOL Energy Center on April 27.
Let’s take a closer look at the teams before I reveal my prediction.
Pittsburgh Penguins – No. 4 Seed – 49-25-8-106 Points
Does anyone remember being excited about seeing some of the prospects in training camp and saying, “These guys are going to be something special in a couple years?”
The fact that the Penguins barely missed a beat despite losing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin speaks to the depth of the organization. It also signifies that Dan Bylsma might know a thing or two about the game of hockey and how to win at the NHL level.
Mark Letestu sure didn’t look like a guy playing in his first full NHL season. The young center scored 14 goals and added 13 assists in 64 games. Due to the injuries, Letestu has been playing between Alex Kovalev and James Neal on the top line.
Other contributions from Chris Conner, Dustin Jeffrey, etc. were what kept the team going while half the roster was out.
Players To Watch
Staal made his season debut during the Winter Classic at Heinz Field. In 42 games, Staal racked up 11 goals and 19 assists. Aside from the offensive output, his work on the penalty kill is incredible.
His big frame, long stick and sharp instincts are what helped the Penguins finish the regular season with the NHL’s top penalty killing unit at 86.1 percent.
He’s also been thrust into more of a leadership role and is embracing it. Staal goes out and leads by example, which works quite well with this squad.
It’s been a career-year for Kennedy. His 21 goals and 45 points surpass his previous highs of 16 goals and 35 assists set back in 2008-09. He also added seven goals and seven assists on the power play.
Is it a coincidence that he put up those numbers in a contract year? I doubt it, but it certainly should pad his wallet this summer. I’ve always liked his work ethic and how he puts pucks on net in any situation. Due to injuries, he was given a more offensive role and he appears to have flourished.
In goal, Fleury has put together a season worthy of at least being mentioned as a Hart Trophy candidate.
The Penguins’ offensive potency has obviously taken a hit with the loss of Crosby and Malkin, but the team continued to win. Why? Defense and the stellar play of Fleury.
Despite a 1-6 record to start the season, Fleury finished with a 36-20-5 record with a 2.32 GAA and .918 save percentage.
Against Tampa Bay this season, Fleury went 2-2 with a 2.02 GAA and .922 save percentage.
3 Reasons Why Pittsburgh Wins
I am a big believer in the theory that defense wins championships. After the defense was exposed in the playoffs last spring, General Manager Ray Shero went out and signed Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.
That duo helped the Penguins finish sixth in terms of goals allowed (196). Last season, the Penguins were ranked 20th in that category after allowing 235 goals in the regular season.
Fleury will be out to prove that he’s the same goaltender who stole Games 6 and 7 against the Detroit Red Wings in 2009. His 2010 playoff performance was not near the same level, but the same could be said for most of the players on the team.
The Penguins’ MVP will have to be on top of his game for Pittsburgh to make a run at the Stanley Cup. I have full confidence that the Flower will be in full bloom when the puck drops Wednesday night.
If Bylsma doesn’t win the Jack Adams Trophy this season, I will be absolutely floored.
We’ve seen a shift in the Penguins’ play since the injury epidemic set in shortly after the calendar changed to 2011.
The Penguins have struggled to score goals without their top two superstars. However, by being responsible in their own end, the team has kept pucks out of their own net. The forecheck is still as aggressive as it ever was because that’s the Penguins’ way of “getting to their game.”
Bylsma has gotten this group to buy into whatever playing style is required for the team to be successful and the transitions appear to be seamless.
Tampa Bay Lightning – No. 5 Seed – 46-25-11-103 Points
Everyone already knew Steve Yzerman was a great player on the ice, but did anyone expect him to turn a franchise around in his first year as general manager?
Let’s do a quick recap of how things have gone for the Lightning over the last couple years.
The last time the Bolts made the playoffs was in 2007 when they qualified as the No. 7 seed. They would lose their first-round series in six games to the New Jersey Devils.
The following year they finished with the league’s worst record and only amassed 71 points in the standings.
In 2008-09, the Bolts moved up one spot in the standings, but saw their point total drop to 66.
In 2009-10, Tampa Bay made better progress by finishing with 80 points. After the season, Yzerman was brought in to help restore the franchise to the level of being a Stanley Cup contender.
Heading into 2010-11 season, goaltending was the biggest question mark. On New Year’s Day, Yzerman dealt Ty Wishart to the Islanders in exchange for Dwayne Roloson.
The move clearly paid dividends as Roloson went 18-12-4 with a 2.56 GAA and .912 save percentage in 34 games with the Bolts.
Players To Watch
The reigning co-Maurice “Rocket” Richard winner got out of the gate hot this season, but cooled off considerably in the second half.
He finished the season with 45 goals and 46 assists, which are still rather impressive. However, of those 45 goals, only 14 came during the 2011 calendar year. His goal production by month looks like this:
- October – 9
- November – 12
- December – 10
- January – 7
- February – 3
- March – 3
- April – 1
Martin St. Louis
St. Louis continues to show why he’s one of the league’s most dangerous players with the puck on his stick.
His 31 goals and 68 assists left him only five points shy of Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin in the NHL scoring race this season.
St. Louis has become a Penguin-killer in his career and will likely be a focal point of Tampa Bay’s game-planning.
In 41 career games against Pittsburgh, St. Louis has racked up 17 goals and 23 assists.
In four games against the Penguins this season, St. Louis scored three times added two assists.
The former Penguin has not participated in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since signing with the Lightning after Pittsburgh lost in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2008.
It’s only fitting that the Pittsburgh-native would return to playoff action to play against his former team isn’t it?
Malone battled injuries this season and only participated in 54 of his team’s games. However, he still put up 14 goals and 24 assists. Even more impressive is his nine goals and nine assists on the power play.
Malone only has one goal and one assist against his former mates. He was held off the scoresheet in four games against Pittsburgh this season and was a minus-4.
3 Reasons Tampa Bay Wins
1. Power Play
Is it shocking that the Lightning’s power play is electric? Okay, I’m done with the puns.
Anyway, Tampa Bay’s power play was ranked sixth in the NHL and first in the Eastern Conference this season at 20.5 percent.
It’s not hard to see why with guys like Stamkos, St. Louis, Malone and Vincent Lecavalier.
Let’s face it, the only reason the No. 8-seed Edmonton Oilers made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006 was because of Roloson. I still think they would have won the Stanley Cup had he not been injured in Game 1 against the Carolina Hurricanes.
However, that was many moons ago, but the 41-year-old goaltender still has the ability to steal games and potentially put this team on his back.
If he gets a little bit of offensive support, Roloson could slam the door on the Penguins.
3. Offensive Weapons
Tampa Bay’s forwards aren’t nearly as banged up as the Penguins. Obviously, Stamkos, St. Louis and Lecavalier are the most well-known names on the squad.
However, Steve Downie (10 goals, 22 assists, 171 penalty minutes), Simon Gagne (17 goals, 23 assists) and Teddy Purcell (17 goals, 34 assists) enjoyed solid seasons.
The team also has the speed to keep up with the Penguins and they like to go to the net to score goals. If they are able to set up in the offensive zone, watch for Tampa to try and create chances from below the goal line.
3 Keys To The Series
1. Special Teams
Given the success the Lightning have had on the power play and the success the Penguins have had on the penalty kill, this is one aspect of the series that will immediately come to the forefront. The team that wins the special teams battle will be in a prime position to win the series.
2. Goaltending Battle
How much does Roloson have in the tank at age 41? This may be the last chance he gets to compete for the Stanley Cup, so he will definitely be motivated.
Fleury will need to put any thoughts about the 2010 playoffs out of his mind. He’s proven in the past that he thrives in the playoff theater. It’s time to do it again.
3. Winning On The Road
It’s easy to say that the Penguins don’t have to worry about winning on the road. All they have to do is just win the four home games in this series and they will move on to the second round. But, there will come a point in this series where a road win will play a big role in who moves on and who goes home. Whether it’s when the team’s back is against the wall, or when they have the chance to eliminate their opponent, winning on the road will be key.
I don’t know why I’m seeing and hearing so many people say that this series is in the bag and that the Pens will win in no more than five games.
I just don’t see it. Tampa’s offense has the ability to score goals in bunches. If this series turns into a goal-scorer’s delight, Tampa Bay will hold the upper hand.
However, the Penguins have been playing a lot of low-scoring and tight-checking games down the stretch. I don’t see another team in the Eastern Conference that is more ready for playoff hockey than the Pens.
I think we’ll see much of the same style from the Penguins in this series, which will ultimately lead to a series victory in six games.
You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CaseySheaPens.