The Pittsburgh Penguins have come a very long way in the past five months. In December, the season looked bleak, and the team looked like it would miss out on the playoffs. Now, after beating the President’s Trophy winner, the Washington Capitals (the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference), in six games, the Penguins are looking dangerous. And they’re looking to carry their stellar second-half play into the Eastern Conference finals where they’ll face the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In the series against Washington, surprisingly both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin struggled to put up the kind of numbers they might have been expected to. Instead, the majority of the offensive power came from Pittsburgh’s third line: Carl Hagelin, Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino. While Crosby and Malkin’s lack of goals might concern some, don’t forget Pittsburgh was up against one of the toughest defenses in the league, which played a big part in the lack of points from the dynamic duo.
The Penguins haven’t had an easy road in the playoffs and played two of the most difficult opponents in the conference (the Capitals and the New York Rangers). Now, head coach Mike Sullivan and his team will be challenged by a Tampa Bay team that plays a similar style.
Much like Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay is surrounded by speed and talent. Lightning center Tyler Johnson leads his team in the playoffs with 13 points (4 G, 9 A) through the 10 games played so far this postseason. Right winger Nikita Kucherov is second on the team with 12 points (9 G, 3 A) and will be a player Pittsburgh’s defense needs to contain.
Tampa Bay’s goaltender, Ben Bishop, has an 8-2 record in the playoffs and has allowed an average of just 1.89 goals a game. Bishop was the thorn in the side of the Lightning’s previous two opponents, the New York Islanders and the Detroit Red Wings.
But the Penguins have also seen some stellar goaltending from rookie Matt Murray, Pittsburgh’s presumed starter for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Murray has a 7-2 record in the playoffs and a 2.05 goals against average per game. Though young (he’s just 21), Murray was the real difference maker in the series against the Capitals.
The Penguins players are aware of what a good matchup this series should be between two teams that play a similar style of hockey. Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang, following Thursday’s practice, called Tampa Bay “a really good team, a fast team” with “lots of skill up front.” And Letang is very accurate. In fact, the Lightning are one of the few teams that truly can keep up with the Penguins and match their speed.
Although the Lightning will be able to match the Penguins’ speed, it will be interesting to see how Tampa Bay’s backend performs. If its defense is able to contain Crosby and Malkin, the series may go longer than Sullivan or the rest of the team would like. But even if Crosby and Malkin don’t have many points, the likes of Kessel, Letang, Hagelin and others will be open to tire out Tampa Bay.
Pittsburgh has a tough test in front of it. But after seeing how well the team played against the two toughest teams in the playoffs, the Penguins have a great chance at blowing Tampa Bay out of the water. The Penguins still have their eyes on that Stanley Cup, and Tampa Bay is in the way of that — but not for long.
Pittsburgh will win this series in six games and move on to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Game 1: vs Lightning @ 8:00 p.m. EST
Game 2: vs Lightning @ 8:00 p.m. EST
Game 3: @ Lightning @ 8:00 p.m. EST
Game 4: @ Lightning @ 8:00 p.m. EST
Game 5: vs Lightning @ 8:00 p.m. EST
Game 6: @ Lightning TBD
Game 7: vs Lightning TBD
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