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Red-hot Penguins present difficult challenge for Lightning in Eastern Conference Final

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Much like the Tampa Bay Lightning, there was a point earlier in the regular season when it appeared the Pittsburgh Penguins might not make it to the postseason after struggling to deal with injuries and inconsistent play.

But over the final month of the season and throughout the playoffs, the Penguins have been the hottest team in the NHL. The Pens won 14 of their last 16 regular season games to go from a team on the playoff bubble to the second-seeded team in the Eastern Conference. The only group with a better record in the East was the Presidents’ Trophy-collecting Washington Capitals, who the Penguins just dispatched in six games during a Second Round series.

After knocking off the prohibitive Stanley Cup favorite, the Penguins are flying high.

So how do the Lightning ground them?

“It’s going to be important to play defense, try to play in their end, try to limit their chances,” Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop said. “They’ve got maybe a few future Hall of Famers over there, two of the best players in the game (in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin) on one team, it can be scary. It’s just going to be important to try to keep them off the scoresheet and kind of out of your zone.”

The problem with focusing all of the attention on the superstars Crosby and Malkin is the Penguins have scoring depth up and down the lineup. Crosby had just two assists in six games against the Capitals. Malkin contributed only a goal and an assist. The Penguins’ third line of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin, however, proved to be the most dangerous grouping versus the Caps. Hagelin led the Penguins with three goals in the series. Kessel scored twice in the decisive Game 6, and Bonino provided the overtime game-winner in Game 6 to send the Penguins through to the next round.

Kessel has 12 points in these playoffs to pace the Penguins. Bonino is tied with Crosby in second with 10 points. Kessel and Patric Hornqvist each have five goals to lead Pittsburgh, showcasing how impossible it is to key on just one or two guys.

“They have a deep lineup throughout,” Bolts defenseman Victor Hedman said. “It’s not just (Crosby and Malkin). You can see from Game 6 against Washington, the Kessel line was really good. We know we’re going to have our hands full. It’s going to be a challenge, but these are the types of games you love to play. You have to be at your best and perform at your best.”

Pittsburgh leads the playoffs for goals, averaging 3.36 a game. During the regular season, the Penguins ranked third for goals (2.94) behind only Dallas (3.23) and Washington (3.02).

“We’ve got to raise our game to another level since the last two series,” Hedman said. “We know we’re playing the best team we’ve faced so far, and we’re going to have our hands full. We can only focus on what we can control.”

The Lightning won all three games against the Penguins in 2015-16, including a 4-2 victory on February 20 in Pittsburgh, the Bolts’ first-ever regular season victory at Consol Energy Center (the Bolts won 3 of 4 playoff games at Consol during a 2011 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchup, the two teams’ only playoff meeting prior to the current series).

But the team the Lightning faced between mid-January to mid-February is much different from the one they’ll see Friday night in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Final. For starters, the Penguins have had more time to assimilate under new head coach Mike Sullivan, who took over for Mike Johnston on December 12. After a rough start to the regular season, Crosby rebounded to lead the Penguins in both goals (36) and scoring (85 points).

And the confidence and belief the Penguins have acquired throughout their current scorching run also makes them a dangerous opponent.

The Lightning, however, won’t change what they’ve been doing because of any challenges the Penguins might present. The Bolts have been on a run too since the postseason started, winning eight of 10 games played thus far. They’ve overcome key injuries to leading scorer Steven Stamkos, top pair defenseman Anton Stralman and speedy forward J.T Brown. And they’re playoff battle tested having gone through last season’s Stanley Cup Final run, plus winning a pair of overtime games on the road in Brooklyn against the Islanders in the Second Round after trailing in both.

“We approach every series going in to win the series,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said when asked if his team’s approach changes with the amount of firepower Pittsburgh has. “As coaches, we’ve got to find a way to put our best players in the best position possible in the series, and players have to play at the top of their game. And that’s how we approach every series. You never really know though how things are going to go until you get into Game 1.”

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