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Behind The Numbers

Breaking down Eastern Conference Final

Tampa Bay's top line looks to continue success; Pittsburgh reliant on Letang, defense

by Rob Vollman / NHL.com Correspondent

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning play Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final at Consol Energy Center on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Pittsburgh defeated the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in six games in the second round. Tampa Bay, the defending conference champion, defeated the New York Islanders in five games in its second-round series.

Here are 5 statistical takeaways heading into the conference final:

1. LINE OF FIRE

By virtually any statistical measure, Tampa Bay's top line of Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov has been the most effective line in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Kucherov is the main driving force behind the line. He leads the NHL with nine goals, and the Lightning have outscored opponents 20-3 when Kucherov has been on the ice, the largest margin of any player this postseason.

Johnson and Kucherov each is plus-11 in the playoffs, and Killorn is plus-10.

Tampa Bay's top line has combined to score 16 of the Lightning's 30 goals, three more than any other line in the NHL.

Video: Preview of the Eastern Conference Final

2. D-ZONE DUTY

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan has found a line in which he has absolute trust in the defensive zone: rookie Tom Kuhnhackl, Matt Cullen and either Bryan Rust or Eric Fehr.

Cullen, 39, has lined up for 103 faceoffs in the defensive zone, which ranks second among forwards to Alexander Steen of the St. Louis Blues (121).

With 11 faceoffs, Cullen has an offensive-zone start percentage of 9.7. The Nashville Predators are the only team with a line used less frequently in the offensive zone; Paul Gaustad and Miikka Salomaki are at 3.8 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively, entering Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks on Thursday.

Starting in the defensive zone so frequently means the Penguins have been outshot 156-85 with Cullen on the ice. His SAT of minus-71 is the second-worst in the NHL behind Nikolay Kulemin of the New York Islanders (minus-75).

3. LEAVE IT TO LETANG

An elite performance from a team's No. 1 defenseman has been a necessary ingredient to postseason success, and that's exactly what Pittsburgh has received from Kris Letang.

The Penguins have outscored opponents 22-9 with Letang on the ice, the largest margin among NHL defensemen.

Letang leads defensemen with a plus-7 rating, ranks fourth with an average of 29:26 of ice time per game, and is sixth with eight points (one goal, seven assists) in 10 games.

Video: Jim Rutherford on effect of his acquisitions

4. KILLING TIME

There have been an average of 8.6 power plays in Tampa Bay's games this postseason, second in the NHL to its first-round opponents, the Detroit Red Wings (9.6). That could place a premium on effective shorthanded play.

Pittsburgh ranked fifth in the League in penalty-killing percentage in the regular season (84.4 percent) and is fifth in the playoffs (83.3 percent).

Tampa Bay ranked seventh in penalty killing at 84.0 percent in the regular season and is third in the playoffs at 88.4 percent.

5. STRIKING FAST

Scoring first will be critical in this series. The Lightning are 6-1 this postseason when scoring first, and the Penguins are 5-1.

Kucherov has scored the first goal in three of Tampa Bay's 10 games, which is tied with Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues for the League lead.

Neither Tampa Bay nor Pittsburgh has lost when carrying a lead into either the second period or the third, but the Lightning have outscored opponents 13-4 in the third, and the Penguins have been outscored 10-9.

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