The Lightning’s top offensive players may be getting hot at just the right time. Martin St. Louis finished the season hot, notching a nine-game point streak with five goals and 14 points. Much like most seasons, he has been the Bolts’ catalyst up front for most of the year.
Probably the most pleasant surprise for Lightning fans was the reemergence of Vincent Lecavalier. Lecavalier battled injures all season but turned it on in the second half, finishing third on the team with 25 goals and 54 points, while also notching 12 power play goals, good for seventh in the NHL. He ended the season on a four-game goal streak. Steven Stamkos’ hot start was tarnished a little bit by a late-season scoring slump, but he still managed to finish second in the NHL for goals with 45 and power play goals with 17. Proven playoff performer Simon Gagne has played in more Stanley Cup Playoff games than any other Lightning player and finished the regular season with five goals and 12 points in the final nine games.
The obvious thing here is that the Penguins will be without sniper Evgeni Malkin (knee) and are expected to be without captain Sidney Crosby (concussion). The only problem is that down the stretch, Pittsburgh did not play like they were missing their top to offensive threats and even took a run at Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division crown. They finished the season winning eight of the last 10 games (five of those by shootout) and enter the playoffs as hot as anybody.
Probably their biggest strength with their two big names out will be scoring depth. The Penguins sported 10 players with double digit goals this season. Chris Kunitz, with 23 goals in the regular season, always seems to be a threat in the playoffs. Softening the blow of injuries up front has been the emergence of Tyler Kennedy, who set career highs with 21 goals and 45 points.
Tampa Bay was also able to spread it around with 10 players of their own recording 10 goals or more. Dominic Moore and Teddy Purcell set career highs with 18 and 17 goals respectively.
Only Philadelphia and Boston scored more goals than the Lightning in the Eastern Conference during the regular season. Pittsburgh wasn’t too far behind, ranking sixth in the conference.
The Lightning’s biggest problem with the defense this season has been health. Eric Brewer, Victor Hedman, Randy Jones, Mike Lundin, Mattias Ohlund and Matt Smaby have each been injured at one point or another. It is hard to remember a time when the d-corps was completely healthy. Nonetheless the defense has held it together, doing a solid job keeping puck carriers to the outside and letting the goalie see the puck.
That time might actually be approaching. Randy Jones is officially ready to play and Victor Hedman is back after sitting out the past two games. Hopefully getting all the bodies back will help out in front of Dwayne Roloson. The Lightning defense also did a great job of getting in front of pucks, helping the team to rank eighth in the NHL with 1,249 blocks. The Bolts’ shot blocking efforts on defense were led by Ohlund with 135 and Brett Clark with 117.
The Penguins are backstopped by the top defensive pairing of the stay-at-home Brooks Orpik and the more offensive-minded Kris Letang. Orpik led Pittsburgh in hits during the regular season with 194 while Letang’s 50 points were second on their entire team. Letang also led the Penguins in average ice time with 24:02.
Its tough to argue against either one of the goaltenders in this series. Despite his age, Roloson came to the Lightning and did exactly what was expected. He solidified the crease for the Bolts, posting a 2.56 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. Roloson showed the ability to battle through crowds to see pucks and is way more athletic than one would think for his 41-year-old body.
In the other net is probably Pittsburgh’s best weapon with Crosby and Malkin out, and that is Marc-Andre Fleury. There have been many arguments for him to receive MVP consideration after leading a injury-depleted Penguins team with a 36-20-5 record with a 2.32 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. Fleury is most-certainly capable of stealing a series and he has done it before.
The most intriguing about the special teams in this series is the Lightning power play against the Pittsburgh penalty kill. Tampa Bay sports the Eastern Conference’s best power play unit, connecting at 20.5 percent during the regular season. The best penalty killing in the league? Pittsburgh, killing off 86.1 percent of opponent’s chances. The Penguins also excelled at scoring shorthanded goals, netting 13 during the regular season. Oddly enough the Lightning allowed more than any other team with 16.