It was the evening of April 27th, 2011. The scoreboard at Consol Energy Center read 1-0 in favor of the visitors with 13.5 seconds left. The Lightning weren’t supposed to be here, but they were one last face-off inside the visitor blue line away from their first playoff series victory since 2004. The Penguins’ Mark Letestu won the face-off, but lost control of the puck, allowing Tampa Bay’s Mattias Ohlund to clear the puck down the ice and kill off the rest of the clock with the Penguins on the power play. The buzzer sounded, handshakes soon followed, and in a three-game swing, the Penguins’ once stranglehold on a 3-1 series lead was gone with opposing goaltender Dwayne Roloson in their nightmares for the summer.
That’s the last time the Lighting met the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and if the names mentioned gave any indication of how much of a roster changeover there has been for both teams, it’s quite remarkable. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin suffered season ending injuries, so they could not make a difference that may have swung the series entirely in the Pens’ favor. Only six Penguins-Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang, Chris Kunitz, Ben Lovejoy, and Marc-Andre Fleury-remain from the 2011 team and two Bolts remain from the team that made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final that season-Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman.
This time around, both teams have hot goaltenders and dynamic attacks that have allowed them to reach the conference finals relatively swiftly, with Tampa making it in ten games and Pittsburgh in 11. If you like the back and forth speed and transition game, get ready for this track meet.
Lighting VS Penguins: Eastern Conference Final Preview
The Lightning stayed true to their name last season as they lit the League up for 259 goals to lead the League. This season, as they battled a Stanley Cup hangover and various injuries in the early parts of the season, they finished with 224 markers, good for 13th. However, a big key through their 28-16-1 run since the new year to close out the season was their offense, scoring 2.84 goals per game including four or more 16 times. Steven Stamkos potted 20 goals in the Lightning’s run before he was diagnosed with the blood clot before the playoffs, leading the team to lean on the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Alex Killorn this playoff year. The Lightning have scored 30 in the ten games they’ve played, with those three combining for 16 of them. After them, Victor Hedman (4G, 9P) and Jonathan Drouin 1G, 9P), the team is relatively thin on contributions with only Ondrej Palat (2G) and Brian Boyle (3G) netting multiple goals. The thing is, no team has been able to stop the big line, yet.
The Penguins went on a run of their own to close out the season under new head coach Mike Sullivan to the tune of 33-16-5 in the 54 games he’s coached. The offense in that stretch has scored 3.16 goals per game, with Sullivan emphasizing an up-tempo and speed game. Sidney Crosby came alive again with his new coach, netting 30 goals and 66 points in the stretch. Kris Letang turned in a Norris-worthy campaign of 67 points in just 71 games played. This, coupled with shrewd moves by General Manager Jim Rutherford in acquiring Trevor Daley in December and Carl Hagelin in January in addition to promoting Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnackl, and Bryan Rust has given the Penguins a balanced attack all throughout the lineup that was absent in years past. The so-called third line of Bonino, Hagelin, and Phil Kessel has been a story since the middle of March, combining for 16 goals and 30 points through two rounds. 11 players have scored two or more goals for the team in their run to the Eastern Conference Final, signifying the burden taken off of Crosby and Malkin, who were held to three assists combined in the Washington series.
Of the four remaining teams in the playoffs, the team has allowed the fewest goals (19) and has the best Corsi% 51.1%. Not bad for the 5th best team in terms of goals-against in the regular season as well as fourth best in terms of shot attempts against in the regular season. Faceoffs have been a strength for the Lightning in the defensive zone, winning 52% of draws in the playoffs in those situations. This pales in comparison to the offensive zone, where they are dead last at 45%. In Anton Stralman’s absence, Victor Hedman has logged 27 minutes per game in the playoffs, driving possession with strong skating and premium outlet passes. Veterans Jason Garrison, Matthew Carle, and young guns Slater Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr have all played elevated roles in Stralman’s absence and the results have spoken for themselves. The 29-year old Stralman could come back in this series, taking some burden off of Hedman while giving an already strong defense possibly its best defensive defenseman back.
As much as damage as Pittsburgh has done on the offensive side, they too have been pretty sturdy allowing 2.2 goals against per game under Sullivan in the regular season. In the postseason, the Penguins have allowed the second-fewest goals with 25 but have not been the same possession team (47.77%) in comparison to the regular season (52.72%). That hasn’t been a problem for them thus far due to their balanced offense and a kid named Matt Murray in goal. They have won 48.4% of draws, with Crosby leading the way at a 51.6% rate, the only Pens center over 50% minimum 90 draws. The Pens have showed strong resiliency in their back-end, winning crucial games in the Washington series with defensemen Olli Maatta and Letang out with an injury and suspension respectively. However, arguably the reason they have been able to advance has been the play of Murray, who has supplanted long-time starter Fleury from the role he has held since coming into his own in Pittsburgh. Letang has been the only plus-defenseman for the Penguins in terms of shot attempt ratio, however. With a a high-octane attack like Tampa’s, the rest of the defense must step up and help Murray out, allowing their offense to take over the game.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Coming into the postseason with a dismal power play (15.8%, 28th), the Lightning have not been much better on the man advantage in the spring, posting a 16.3%, 10% worse than the next team left. A big reason for that has been the home power play, converting at a 10.7% rank (3/28). On the road, the team is much more respectable, scoring 26.7% of the time (4/15). Nikita Kucherov has three goals at 5v4 play to lead the team. The Lightning PK finished 7th best in the regular season at 84%, and in the postseason has been even better, killing off 88% of opposing man advantages to lead the group of teams left.
Pittsburgh’s power play improved to 18.4% under Sullivan to finish at the middle of the pack at 16th overall in the regular season. In the playoffs, it has been pretty consistent, averaging out at 27.5%. There is a .5% difference in road and home power play with the road unit besting at 27.8%. Phil Kessel leads the Pens with four power play goals. The Penguins were neck and neck with their Eastern Conference foes in the regular season on the penalty kill, killing off just .4% more penalties than them to finish fifth in the League (84.4%). In the playoffs, the unit has fallen just below the Lightning at 83%.
All 6’7″ of Ben Bishop has formed the backbone for this Lightning team. Putting together the best regular season of his career, among goalies that played at least 50 games, Bishop led them all with a .926 save percentage and 2.06 GAA. His .930 5v5 save percentage among goalies that played at least 2000 minutes was 10th overall in the League. In the playoffs, its been business as usual for the Denver native. Among remaining goaltenders, his .938 save percentage ranks best to go along with his 1.89 GAA. His .942 save percentage at even strength is second to Matt Murray, and if the Penguins want to have any success against him, they must get bodies in front and power through Tampa Bay’s big defense (average size: 6’4″).
Matt Murray didn’t have any NHL playoff experience, let alone much NHL experience altogether (13 games). Still, when called upon he performed admirably, notching nine wins and posting a .930 save percentage to go along with a 2.00 GAA. In the playoffs, in a few words, he has been a savior for the Penguins. After recovering from an injury at the end of the regular season, it has been his team, posting a .935 save percentage and 2.05 GAA to trail only Bishop. As mentioned before however, his even strength save percentage leads all goalies at .952. The environment, no matter how hostile, hasn’t made much difference to Murray, as he has out dueled Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby, two of the game’s most glorified net minders. Can he defeat the monster at the other end? We shall see.
Jon Cooper has been through the grind. Logging over 700 games of regular season head coaching experience to go along with eight playoff runs at four different levels, the resume speaks volumes. He’s won a USHL title with the Green Bay Gamblers, an AHL title with the Norfolk Admirals, and came within two wins of a Stanley Cup to add to his mantle last season. You can bet deep inside the cool and collected individual that he is that he’s fired up for another chance to go back to the Final. The Lightning will not have home ice this round, but on the road, the Lightning have been quite comfortable, winning three of four games, all by a one-goal margin needing overtime twice. He’ll need to get the most out of his supporting cast to match the Penguins’ balanced attack, complimenting his clicking top line.
Mike Sullivan hasn’t had the length of coaching experience as Cooper, but has gained valuable experience as an assistant throughout the NHL. As a head coach he’s logged just over 300 games, serving as an assistant for seven seasons and four different organizations. This season with Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre, he’s won a combined 52 games utilizing his past lessons to his advantage. His system seems to be the perfect fit for the Penguins as seen with the aforementioned resurgence of Crosby to go along with the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel formation he crafted towards the end of the season. Having a hot goaltender at his side along with a balanced attack benefits his chances, but he must match to the speed of Cooper’s group if he wants this run to extend to the Stanley Cup Final.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Need for Speed
Both teams want to play up tempo-style games. It will come down to how the Lightning’s supporting cast can aid the Kucherov-Johnson-Killorn line in driving the attack. They need more from veterans like Ryan Callahan, Boyle, and Filppula to go along with Palat and Vladislav Namestnikov (1G, 2P). If Stamkos and Stralman can return, it would be a welcome addition, but the Lightning can’t bank on that to spread out their scoring. If Pittsburgh can get more from Crosby and Malkin in this series, it makes their attack even more dangerous.
Breaking Down The Wall
As mentioned before, the two men in net have been the best throughout Lord Stanley’s Tournament, neck and neck in save percentage and goals against average. Bishop has a strong case for the Vezina, and Murray has more than found his way given the limited experience he’s had. Both have been prime reasons that their teams have made it this far, but one has to lose. If the Penguins can get on the in the blue paint with Patric Hornqvist and others doing their dirty work in front of the net, they may find some holes in Bishop. If the Lightning can crack a young goaltender’s confidence on the big stage, they may find some success. Easier said than done with Murray however, who has warmed to the task against two of the League’s best.
Been Here Before
The defending Eastern Conference Champions made quick work of a weaker Detroit Red Wings team with a first-year head coach and an Islanders team that had just come off winning the franchise’s first playoff series since 1993. The Penguins, as mentioned, have just six players on their roster from the 2011 team. That number stands at six from the 2009 Stanley Cup Championship roster, but the winning goaltender from that team is currently sitting on the bench tracking face-offs. Tampa Bay has retained nearly all of the team from last season that came two games from the franchise’s second Stanley Cup, minus Stamkos and Stralman for this run. The team went to seven against the Rangers last season in this round, and the Penguins will put up a similar fight, possibly with even more vigor. Drawing on that experience, the Lightning will have to have all hands on deck to produce a similar result against the upstart Penguins.
Penguins in 6
The upstart group of Penguins will prevail. Murray will continue to dazzle, outdueling a third-straight elite goaltender to push his team four wins away from the Final. Pittsburgh’s balanced attack is the huge key, as they will find more outlets of scoring to combat the output of Tampa’s killer line. Mike Sullivan simply has more lines contributing under his watch and the system he’s employing has beaten the best. This postseason, the Penguins have been the prime example of the hot team beating the best team, and the trend will continue with everyone contributing to go along with a hot goalie.
Here are the rest of the LWOS Hockey Dept Predictions
Penguins in 5: Tyler Shea
Penguins in 6: Ben Kerr, Matt Ricks, Nicholas DiGiovanni, Connor Ferguson, Markus Meyer, Ben Anderson, Dave Gove, Catherine Dore, Shawn Wilken
Penguins in 7: Ken Hill
Lightning in 6: Nic Hendrickson, Owen Durkin,
Lightning in 7: Charlie Clarke
Stats courtesy of hockeydb, hockey reference, NHL.com, WBS Penguins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, ESPN, war-on-ice.com