The Series: #4 Pittsburgh Penguins (49-25-8, 106 pts.) vs. #5 Tampa Bay Lightning (46-25-11, 103 pts.)

Regular Season: Series tied 2-2.  Pittsburgh managed 5-1 and 8-1 wins while Tampa claimed victory 5-3 and, most recently, 2-1.

How they Match Up:

As with most four/five match-ups, the two teams are pretty even.  Only three points separated these groups in the regular season.  The Penguins went 13-5-2 in their last 20, but six of those wins came in the shootout.  The Lightning were 9-7-4 in their final 20 games, winning only one of those games in a shootout.

History:

The Penguins and Lightning have never met in the postseason, so there isn’t much history between the two franchises.  However,  it’s almost impossible to discuss these two teams without mentioning this:

While that hit wasn’t especially dirty and it likely didn’t cause the majority of the damage to Crosby’s head, that game is still the last time Sidney Crosby played hockey.  It has to be in the back of everyone’s mind going into this series.

Another tie between the two teams comes from the players who have been with both franchises.  Adam Hall, Dominic Moore and – most importantly – Ryan Malone are all former Penguins.  Malone was born in Pittsburgh and he spent four years with the team before heading to Tampa Bay in the summer of 2008.  This will be the first time Malone has played in the playoffs since reaching the finals with Pittsburgh.  The Penguins decided not to sign him and traded his rights to the Lightning that year.  Malone will have something to prove in this series.

Key Players:

Marc-Andre Fleury is by far the most important player on the Penguins.  On a team that is missing so much of its offensive talent, Fleury will be counted on to steal a few games.  Up front, Jordan Staal will be expected to shoulder the heavy load left by the absence of Crosby and Malkin, which is a departure from his usual defensive game.

The Tampa Bay Lightning still have two key members of their 2004 Stanley Cup team on their roster: Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.  These two stars will not only be counted on to provide offensive firepower, but they will need to offer leadership and guidance to the rest of the team as well.

Potential Weaknesses:

The Pittsburgh Penguins have a pretty terrible power play.  They’ve scored in only 15.8% of their opportunities with the man advantage, which ranks them 25th in the league.  Nashville is the only playoff team with a worse power play.  The Lightning on the other hand have the fifth-ranked power play.

The Penguins will also suffer from a lack of pure offense, choosing instead to grind out victories.

The Lightning’s main question mark remains in goal.  While Dwayne Roloson is a solid netminder who can rise to the occasion when necessary, that may not be enough for the Lightning.  General inexperience throughout the Lightning line-up could be a weakness as well.  While St. Louis, Lecavalier and Pavel Kubina have Cup rings from 2004, the Penguins are just two years removed from winning the championship.

Key Injuries:

None.

Just kidding.  The Penguins will be without Dustin Jeffrey, which will weaken their strength down the middle.  Jeffrey will likely miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury.

There are also two guys named Crosby and Malkin who could possibly be missed.

All kidding aside, the Penguins are entering a playoff series where they will be out classed on offense for the first time in a long while.  While the team managed to win games without the two superstars during the season, it could be a completely different story in the playoffs.

For Tampa Bay, Victor Hedman has missed time recently with a “lower body injury,” though he is expected to play game one.

Difference Makers:

Pittsburgh will need to continue to score goals by committee.  Players like Mike Rupp, Max Talbot, Tyler Kennedy, Chris Kunitz and others aren’t typically classified as goal scorers, but they’ll need to put the puck in the net this series.  Newly acquired James Neal was brought in to help the team’s offense, but he’s only scored one goal as a Penguin this year.  Alex Kovalev, of the the only true “snipers” on this Pittsburgh team will be counted on as well.

The team spent a lot of money on defense in the offseason, and they will need to have their investment pay off now.

Simon Gagne scored several big goals for Philadelphia during their run to the finals last year.  His recent experience could be a difference maker for Tampa Bay.

The fact that we’ve gotten this far without even mentioning Steven Stamkos yet shows how deep the Lightning are offensively.  Stamkos will be a key to the Lightning power play.  The Penguins have the top penalty kill in the league, but they also take more penalties than everyone else in the league, except the New York Islanders.  Special teams will be a huge difference maker in this series.

Prediction:

This will almost certainly be a tough series that could go either way.  The Penguins have the experience and the edge in goaltending, but the Lightning have a lot more firepower and could embarrass the Penguins with their power play.  The Penguins will need to focus on wearing the Lightning defenders down and grinding out victories.  If they can do that, they will be successful.  Penguins in Seven.

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