By Sidney Mahan (@PuckSniper_3)
Well, it took some really, really, really hard work, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are headed to their first Eastern Conference Final since 2013. And this time, the team standing between them and the Prince of Wales trophy (awarded to the Eastern Conference Champions) is the Tampa Bay Lightning. The last time these two teams played each other, in the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Bolts took the series in seven games. This year, though, we have two very different teams facing off.
The Penguins did not do well against the Lightning this regular season – losing all three of their games against Tampa Bay – but then again, those games took place on January 5, February 5, and February 20 (two of which Jeff Zatkoff played in, and the first of which was an OT loss). That, however, was before the Penguins absolutely caught fire and began going on a winning rampage that saw them stomp into the playoffs and establish themselves as a legitimate and deadly contender to hoist the Stanley Cup this year. Still, though, the Lightning are meeting them in the Conference Final for a reason. Here’s a breakdown of where each team is coming into this series and some key things to watch for when they prepare for Round 3:
Two rivalry series to start off their playoff run, but the Penguins have survived through and have earned half as many wins as are needed to win the Cup.
Round 1 saw the Penguins play quite a solid series to finally overcome their playoff troubles against the New York Rangers – I won’t go too far into that series. This last series against the Capitals, though? I’m surprised I survived it with a fully functioning heart.
All but one game of the Pens-Caps series was decided by one goal, and three of them – Games 1, 4, and 6 – were decided by overtime goals, including Nick Bonino’s series-winning tap-in in Game 6. Every game was a nail-biter, and let’s just say hockey fans were not disappointed by a series that would always be looked forward to. To be honest, though, it would be a lot more fun to watch and follow the series as a neutral fan than a Penguins or Capitals fan – because let me tell you, I was not able to relax until Bonino ended the series. Every single game saw both teams come hard at each other, and just because the Capitals were sent home does not mean they didn’t play well. They put some severe pressure on the Penguins every game, and went down fighting. Yes, they are hated rivals without a doubt, but as a hockey enthusiast I tip my hat to Washington for a hard fought series. But in the end, the Penguins won, and for a few reasons.
Three of those reasons – which I hope to see continue next series as well – were huge secondary scoring, overwhelming speed, and solid defense (including that brick wall named Matt Murray). Against the Capitals, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were pretty quiet, combining for only four points in six games – but their teammates stepped up. The line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel was huge for the Penguins, especially in Game 6, when Kessel scored twice, Hagelin scored once, and Bonino scored the overtime goal. Meanwhile, speed helped the Penguins quickly break out of their zone and be able to efficiently set themselves up in the offensive zone – when you outpace the other team, you’re more likely to get the better chances. Finally, for the most part I was extremely impressed with the Penguins defense, which gave us some pretty memorable moments, such as their step-up performance when Kris Letang sat out on a one-game suspension. I also liked their ability to repel a lot of the Capitals’ best chances. Rookie goalie Matt Murray has continued to crash through people’s expectations. Murray managed to play as impressively as Vezina candidate Braden Holtby, his opponent in the crease at the other end of the ice. Murray managed to frustrate some of the Capitals’ best scorers, and had more than his fair share of clutch saves in every single game.
What do the Penguins’ need to improve? There are a few things I’d like to see them clean up in this series. First of all, cut down on the sloppy turnovers. Some games are better than others, but overall the Penguins cannot afford to make bad decisions or executions when they have the puck. They can’t allow Tampa Bay to easily pick off pucks, and I’d definitely like Pittsburgh to avoid getting stuck in long stretches where they are unable to properly clear the puck from their defensive zone. A lot of times through these playoffs, opposing teams have either scored or gotten really close to scoring because even though the Penguins got the puck in their zone a few times, they failed to get the puck out at all and were trapped until either the other team scored, the puck finally came out, or Murray was able to control a shot and prevent a rebound. I’d expect Tampa Bay to be very opportunistic, so the Penguins need to make sure they don’t give the Lightning anything easy. Secondly – and relating quite strongly to the stressful third period of Game 6 – the Penguins have to stay out of the box. Sure, Game 6’s three delay-of-game penalties and that whole deal were largely bad luck, but the Penguins made it worse. Shortly after John Carlson had capitalized on the resulting 5-on-3 power play for the Capitals and tied the game, completing a three goal rally form Washington, Kris Letang took an interference minor for an unnecessary hit on T.J. Oshie. The problem wasn’t the hit, which in itself was clean, it was the fact that it was definitely not needed and was a reckless thing to do, especially when the Penguins had just barely fully given up their three-goal-lead as a result of a series of penalties. For a defenseman as elite as Letang, you’d expect better judgment. Also, Game 5 – where the Capitals delayed their elimination – was a game where I saw way too much retaliation from the Penguins. They cannot afford to lose control of their emotions at any point, and they have to be the more disciplined team at all times. It doesn’t matter how good the Penguins’ penalty kill is, or how bad or good the opposing power play is, the Penguins are much better off staying out of the sin bin than giving up time to go on offense by killing penalties – especially stupid, reckless penalties. And speaking of special teams, the Penguins power-play, which had an impressive little stint last game that built their 3-0 lead, can become a big factor in this series. It is definitely in Pittsburgh’s best interests to take advantage as many times as they can when the Lightning end up in the box.
Injury updates: There is speculation to see if the Penguins will give their normal starting goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, a chance to start his first game of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Fleury last played on March 31st, and was out until about midway through the Pens-Caps series with his second concussion of the 2015-16 season. Since Game 3, he has been cleared to play, but has been sitting on the bench serving as Murray’s backup. It will be interesting to see if the Penguins decide to stick with Murray, who has been overall solid for them in these playoffs, or if they will go with Fleury. It is important to note that in the last two games of the previous series, Murray appeared to be going through a shaky stretch, allowing six goals on 55 shots and posting a combined .891 save percentage in Games 5 and 6. It will be very interesting to see if Mike Sullivan gives Murray a full chance to advance to the final and become immortalized in history after beating three fantastic goalies: Henrik Lundqvist, Braden Holtby, and Ben Bishop, or if he feels Fleury’s veteran position and extensive playoff experience should be defending the Penguins crease. Keep an eye out on who the Pens choose to guard their net…
The Tampa Bay Lightning have advanced to the Eastern Conference Final, and they’ve done it without some of their best players, most notably Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman.
Admittedly, the Lightning have taken statistically easier matchups than the Penguins – playing the Detroit Red Wings in the first round and the New York Islanders in the second – but it’s still been an impressive effort from Tampa Bay. They won both series in five games, too. This is also a team that is going to its third conference final since 2011, and the team that advanced to the Stanley Cup Final just last year.
There were a lot of admirable areas of Tampa Bay’s series against New York that helped them advance. Some of the best news for the Lightning and their fans has been the rise of the “triplets”: Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov’s chemistry worked well, and plus, Alex Killorn’s move to Jonathan Drouin and Valtteri Filppula’s line also resulted in solid production. Many doubted that the Lightning offense could do much of anything without a guy like Stamkos, but Tampa’s secondary scoring has really taken them places. Kucherov has established himself as an offensive leader, and is currently leading the NHL in playoff goals with nine in 10 games. Four of those goals came against the Islanders. The team defense has also been spectacular. The Islanders’ best offensive line, with Brock Nelson, John Tavares, and Kyle Okposo, was held back well by the Lightning. Tavares, undeniably one of the best clutch performers in the League, was pointless in the final four games of the series. The defensive effort was led by Victor Hedman, and valiantly continued despite the several d-men injuries by younger and very inexperienced defensemen, Luke Witkowski, Matt Taormina, and Slater Koekkoek. Another important aspect of Tampa Bay’s game: coming up big late in games. The Bolts established themselves as a true third-period team against the Islanders, outscoring New York 9-3 in third period and overtime goals. Games 3 and 4 both saw the Lightning behind in the third period, but in both those games, Kucherov scored to tie the game and the Lightning took both in overtime. Although the series outcome makes it look like the Lightning completely dominated the Islanders, the games were actually much closer, with the difference for the Lightning coming in the way they responded in the third period and in sudden death.
So playing against the Penguins, two key factors for the Lightning would in fact be the two strengths they had against New York: defense and late-game heroics. Seeing how effectively the Bolts shut down a player like John Tavares, it will be interesting to see if they can do the same in shutting down Pittsburgh’s stars, most notably Crosby and Malkin. Whether or not Pittsburgh can get scoring from other sources, it can only help to keep 87 and 71 quiet; they are both players capable of leading their team to victory. Meanwhile, the Lightning could strive to do what the Washington Capitals actually did against the Penguins in Round 2; try to win games late. The Capitals also were a third-period team in their second round series; in most of the games, the Capitals’ best hockey came in the third period. That’s how they managed to almost catch up with the Penguins even when the Pens were leading by multiple goals by second intermission. It’s obviously not a good strategy for Tampa Bay to rely on being able to go down in the first two periods and come back in the third, but expect them to have a lot of confidence if the situation ever arises where they need to do so. It’s possible they can be as successful or maybe even more successful than Washington in this respect. One of the biggest things I would definitely work on if I were Tampa Bay would be the power play. The Penguins’ penalty kill has so far been pretty solid, but the Lightning power play went 3-for-19, hardly at a standard where it can be a benefical factor for the Bolts.
Oh, and not to mention, it’s possible they may get some key players back during this series… (see below)
Injury updates: Steven Stamkos hasn’t played since March 31st after needing surgery to treat a blood clot in his collarbone, and Anton Stralman hasn’t played since March 25th after a fracture occurred in his left fibula. Both have returned to skating, but neither made it into the lineup against the Islanders. However, the possibility has been left open for both of them to return against the Penguins. The series starts Friday, May 13th in Pittsburgh, and even if Stamkos and Stralman don’t make it to Game 1, it is “plausible” they will return at some point.
“The Lightning and Penguins have a chance to plant the seeds for a formidable rivalry now, in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, where they will put their skill, speed and hopefully their full rosters on the ice for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.” – Wes Crosby, NHL.com Correspondent
I’m quite excited for this series, especially since I don’t consider the 2011 series a “proper” one, with the Penguins having to play without both Crosby (concussion) and Malkin (knee). I mean, let’s get real here, in that series the Pens’ top line was Alex Kovalev, Mark Letestu, and James Neal (playing the wrong wing). Plus, that was a situation where the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead; but Pittsburgh seems to have finally fought off this playoff demon, because in these playoffs so far they have mostly made good on closing out their series. These are also two teams with a lot of Stanley Cup Playoffs experience in recent years, and a few players on both rosters who have even been to the Final, some even lifting the Cup. There are a lot of strengths and weaknesses both teams have which seem to cancel each other out. For example, the Penguins’ defense has so far done a good job of shutting down the better players on the other team, but so have the Lightning’s defensemen; and even if both teams shut down each other’s star players, both Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay have gotten some phenomenal secondary scoring from their other players. I expect a pretty close series; I don’t think either team will go down quietly and without a fight. Also expect to see some real passion and motivation; both these teams are 4 wins away from the Cup final, and eight wins away from the Cup itself. So now that you’ve got a preview for this series, buckle up and get ready for Game 1, Friday night in Pittsburgh – puck drop is scheduled for 8:00 PM ET. It’s going to be a good one.