Ilya Bryzgalov (Getty Images)
Penguins vs. Lightning (Getty Images)
Sure, Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher rightfully believes his team can win at the Consol Energy Center -- his Lightning were 21-14-6 on the road, taking 48 of a possible 82 points -- but this season series was dominated by the home team.
For each team, a key problem must be solved in order to advance.
The Penguins, suddenly short at center after injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, will have to figure out how they are going to counter Tampa Bay's top line, which is one of the best in the League.
For the Lightning, it will likely come down to finding a way to keep Pittsburgh's primary scorers off the board. The Penguins don't have a ton of depth, but the Lightning have struggled to keep the puck out of their own net for much of the season.
The Penguins know Evgeni Malkin won't be available, but the big question for this group is will Sidney Crosby return? Alex Kovalev and James Neal were added at the trade deadline, but this team will likely continue to struggle on offense without Crosby, who has been out since early January with a concussion.
Chris Kunitz and Tyler Kennedy have provided a lot of the offense in Crosby's absence, and Jordan Staal has collected points at a career-high pace despite missing nearly half the season – and starting slow upon his return.
The Penguins will rely on depth and hard work to grind out goals. Should Crosby return and Kovalev rekindle his past form, this could be a formidable group.
The Lightning offense, powered by 10 double-digit goal scorers, finished among the top eight in the League with 2.94 goals per game. Stamkos started the season on a torrid pace and has cooled off a bit but, as coach Guy Boucher told NHL.com, "the longer he doesn't score, the better for us because he will … we're sure about that." Stamkos will be extra motivated just because he'll be making his first appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since making his NHL debut in 2008-09. St. Louis reached the 30-goal plateau for the sixth time in his career and has had back-to-back seasons of 90-plus points.
Pittsburgh native Ryan Malone, who was sidelined more than a month with a groin injury, returned to the lineup March 31 and received added rest as a healthy scratch down the stretch. His physical presence will certainly be a welcomed addition; Malone finished third on the team with 125 hits.
The summer acquisition of wing Simon Gagne, who has ridden shotgun alongside Stamkos for much of the season, has also proven to be vital. Lecavalier, who suffered an eye injury but has since returned to the lineup, reached the 20-goal mark for an 11th straight season and Teddy Purcell erupted for career highs across the board with 17 goals, 34 assists and 51 points.
Given injuries in Montreal, Philadelphia and Washington, this is probably the best defense corps in the Eastern Conference. Kris Letang has developed into a fringe contender for the Norris trophy, while Paul Martin logs big minutes and Brooks Orpik and Zybnek Michalek aren't much fun to play against.
Matt Niskanen and either Ben Lovejoy or Deryk Engelland will round out the group. There are a couple of OK options at the AHL level in case of emergency as well. There will be plenty of focus on the forwards and the goalie sans Crosby, but this collection of defensemen could ultimately decide how far the Penguins can go.
The Lightning weren't very good at keeping their opponents off the scoreboard this season. The team was No. 20 in the League in goals allowed with 234 (2.84 goals-against average).
Still, there is hope that the core group can put it together in the postseason behind Mattias Ohlund, Pavel Kubina, Victor Hedman, Brett Clark, Eric Brewer, Mike Lundin and Marc-Andre Bergeron. Kubina knows what it takes to establish a long postseason run as he is one of three players on the team -- along with St. Louis and Lecavalier -- to play for the 2003-04 Cup-winning team in Tampa. Brewer (21:34) and Hedman (21:00) led the team in ice time per game.
Marc-Andre Fleury had a terrible start to the season (1-6-0 with an .853 save percentage in his first eight appearances), but has been one of the top goaltenders in the League since mid-November.
Fleury's work since Crosby and Malkin went down has earned him some recognition as a potential MVP candidate, and the Penguins will lean on him heavily this postseason.
He and San Jose's Antti Niemi are the only No. 1 goaltenders in this postseason who have been a No. 1 guy for a Cup-winning team.
Brent Johnson played well early in the season when Fleury was struggling.
For the Lightning, 41-year-old Roloson will be the man between the pipes and Mike Smith will serve as his backup.
Roloson, who has compiled an 18-12-4 mark with a 2.56 goals-against average and .912 save percentage since being acquired from the New York Islanders on Jan. 1, has plenty of postseason experience.
Smith, who won his final three starts with a 1.33 GAA, ended the regular season 13-7-6 with a 2.90 GAA and .899 save percentage.
Dan Bylsma won the Stanley Cup a little less than four months into his NHL coaching career, rallying a team that was outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference in mid-February to a title. That said, it is possible this season has been his best to date. Bylsma has steered the Penguins through opening a new arena, an HBO reality series and injuries to the team's two best players en route to more than 100 points.
Tampa's Guy Boucher has certainly gotten the best out of his group in his first season at the helm. He's been a masterful tutor for the young players on the team and a voice of reason for the veterans. There's no denying the turnaround -- from finishing fourth in the Southeast and missing the playoffs last season to contending for the Southeast Division title and qualifying in 2010-11. His system certainly played well to the strengths of Stamkos (31 goals, 99 points) and St. Louis (45 goals, 91 points).
The Penguins have been at or near the top of the League at killing penalties all season. Limiting teams on the power play has gone a long way to keeping them in games without the superstar centers. Pittsburgh's power play has been a sore spot for a long time and is in the bottom third of the League.
Tampa Bay's power play ranked No. 5 at home and No. 9 on the road, while finishing sixth overall with a 20.5 percent efficiency. Stamkos led the team with 17 power-play goals. The Lightning actually finished second in the League with 336 power-play opportunities. Tampa Bay finished No. 8 in penalty-killing with an 83.8 percent success rate -- No. 9 at St. Pete Times Forum (84.3 percent) and No. 11 on the road (83.2). Forward Nate Thompson scored the lone shorthanded for the Lightning this season back in January.
James Neal, Pittsburgh -- Neal has not provided the goal-scoring punch Pittsburgh expected ... yet. He could be a surprise in the postseason and give the Penguins a little more scoring depth -- especially if Crosby were to return and Neal is paired with him.
Dwayne Roloson, Tampa Bay -- If goaltending is the equalizer in the postseason, then Tampa Bay is in pretty good shape with Roloson standing prominently in the crease. He sports a career mark of 18-12 with a 2.56 GAA in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He might have been in the conversation for the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy had the Edmonton Oilers pulled out their seven-game Cup series against the Carolina Hurricanes -- he was 12-5 through the first three rounds before suffering a third-degree MCL sprain in his right knee during Game 1 of the Cup Final.
Penguins will win if... They can maintain the defensive integrity that served them so well during the long-term absences of Crosby and Malkin. The Pens have the only Cup-winning goalie in the East and can parlay that advantage even further by limiting the amount of prime scoring chances Fleury has to face on a nightly basis.
Lightning will win if... They guard against the opposition scoring against them shorthanded. The Lightning may have had a pretty prolific power play this year, but they also allowed a League-leading 16 shorthanded goals.