PITTSBURGH -- The Tampa Bay Lightning had no problems complimenting the Pittsburgh Penguins and their big-name stars heading into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final at Consol Energy Center on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports), saying they are the best team they will face in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But Lightning center Tyler Johnson said Thursday he believes his team -- the defending Eastern Conference champion -- is pretty good too.
"To be this far your team has to be pretty good," Johnson, who leads Tampa Bay with 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 10 games during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, said Thursday. "You look at the lineup and they obviously have a lot of skill and we expect all that. But we feel like we have a lot of skill as well."
Pittsburgh defeated the Washington Capitals in six games in the second round despite getting one goal and three assists combined from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But the Penguins have depth; the line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel had 18 points against the Capitals.
Video: NYI@TBL, Gm2: Johnson beats Greiss with slick shot
"We're just going to have to play our game and do everything we need to do," Johnson said. "Play structurally sound and the hockey that we like to play. As long as we do that, I have full faith in our guys. But we just have to be on our A-game right from the start."
The Lightning weren't able to do that against the New York Islanders in the second round, losing Game 1 at home. But Tampa Bay bounced back quickly and won four straight. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he thinks opening on the road for the first time this postseason could be beneficial because the players know they'll need to be on their toes from the start.
Tampa Bay went 3-0-0 against Pittsburgh during the regular season, but Friday will be the first game between the teams since Feb. 20.
"We approach every series like we're going to win the series," Cooper said. "That's how we approach it. As coaches, we've got to find a way to put our players in the best position possible to win the series and the players have to be on top of their game. That's how we approach every series."
That approach has worked, with the Lightning needing five games in each of the first two rounds to get past the Detroit Red Wings and the Islanders, respectively. Though the challenge is greater in the conference final, the Lightning say that won't alter how they prepare for the Penguins.
Video: NYI@TBL, Gm5: Bishop makes spectacular pad save
"You don't approach it different, [but] you're aware of it," Lightning goalie Ben Bishop said. "You know what they're capable of. I would say [the Islanders are] a little bit like this; they like to be offensive, they like to be on the go, they want to push the pace and create chances. I guess these guys are like that, but just with more skilled players and a little bit more speed almost. We're going to have to be aware of it. We can't get into that run-and-gun game that they're going to want to play.
"We're going to keep them off the score sheet as much as possible, but you know that they've got too much skill over there to shut them out every single game. It's just going to be important to try to limit it. And obviously they're going to have some opportunities, and we just have to stop them as often as possible."
Defenseman Victor Hedman, who had eight points against the Islanders, agreed that the Lightning can't change their style against the Penguins.
"I try to play as good as I can," he said. "We've got to play at a tougher level. We've got to raise our game to another level since the last two series. We know we're playing the best team we've faced so far. We're going to have our hands full.
"We can only focus on what we can control. We have to try and limit their space with the puck for us to execute our game plan to a T."
Video: NYI@TBL, Gm5: Hedman scores a pair in Game 5
In addition to Hedman's strong offensive play, he helped hold Islanders captain John Tavares off the score sheet for the final four games of the series. It was a good way to prepare for the star players the Penguins have up front.
"I wouldn't call it a warmup," Hedman said. "You take it game by game, series by series. Tavares is obviously one of the best players in this League. We talked about going into series that we had to slow him down to have a good chance of winning. We played a good defensive game throughout. Everyone played to their best. Not just the [defensemen], the forwards as well, helping in the [defensive] zone. We have to approach this the same way."