By: Chris Gates

PITTSBURGH (93-7 the FAN) — The way last season ended hasn’t escaped the memories of many in Pittsburgh — not the players, fans or media.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had home-ice advantage and a 3-games-to-1 series lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning heading into Game 5 at the Consol Energy Center. The stage was set to win the series and move on to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

At the time, it even seemed like captain Sidney Crosby might be able to return if the Penguins advanced.

It didn’t happen. The Penguins dropped Games 5, 6 and 7 for the earliest playoff exit since the 2006-07 season. The two teams reunite for the first time since that playoff collapse tonight at Tampa Bay for a 7:30 p.m. faceoff.

“It’s definitely a little bit of a bitter feeling,” forward Jordan Staal said. “When a team puts you out of the playoffs and (you don’t) get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup it leaves a little bitter taste in your mouth. We wanna give a great effort there and see if we can get a big win against them.”

The word bitter rang true with defenseman Brooks Orpik as well.

“It’s just a regular season game, so it obviously doesn’t carry as much significance as the playoffs,” Orpik said. “But they knocked (us) out. You’re always gonna have a little bit of a bitter taste in your mouth.”

Some things have changed and some remain eerily the same since last year’s first round. The Penguins power play has steadily improved since last year and forward Evgeni Malkin is back and healthy — both big differences. However, Crosby is still not playing and the penalty kill is among the league’s best — both similar to a year ago.

Tampa Bay is still frustrating teams with its 1-3-1 set up, which is similar to last year, and their power play is still effective because of a slew of dangerous forwards.

“We played them a lot last year. We’re familiar with that team,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said. “We went to Game 7. They have some very dangerous forwards: (Steven) Stamkos, (Martin) St. Louis, (Vincent) Lecavailer. Their power play is very dangerous and has beaten us in the past. We expect to see that again.

“We’ve had success playing certain ways against Tampa Bay. We need to make sure we’re playing that way and getting to the offensive zone so that we can do work where we can be good and hopefully exploit Tampa Bay.”

And possibly wash some of that bitter taste away in the process.

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