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Conference Final

5 storylines for Lightning-Penguins

Possible return of Stamkos, Fleury among Eastern Conference Final headlines

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning have met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs one time, and even that time deserves an asterisk.

It was in 2011 and Penguins centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin did not play. Crosby had a concussion and Malkin had a knee injury. Pittsburgh's top line was Alex Kovalev, Mark Letestu and James Neal playing on the wrong wing.

The Penguins held a 3-1 lead after four games of the best-of-7 series, including a 3-2 win in double overtime in Game 4. The Lightning won the next three to win the series.

It was a memorable series that went the distance, but it didn't create any type of rivalry, nor did it seem all that fair that the Penguins were without two of the game's best players.

The Lightning and Penguins have a chance to plant the seeds for a formidable rivalry now, in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, where they will put their skill, speed and hopefully their full rosters on the ice for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

It's unclear if the full allotment of star power these teams typically generate will be available. That topic and more are part of the top storylines going into the series.

Here are 5 storylines to follow in the lead-up to the Eastern Conference Final:

1. WELCOME ADDITIONS, MAYBE

The Lightning got to the Eastern Conference Final without captain Steven Stamkos and defenseman Anton Stralman. That they have gotten this far means it's possible either player could return for the series against the Penguins.

Stralman hasn't played since March 25 since sustaining a non-displaced fracture of his left fibula. Stamkos hasn't played since March 31 because of surgery to treat a blood clot in his collarbone. They have been skating, but neither got into the lineup against the New York Islanders in the second round.

With the start of the conference final Friday in Pittsburgh, it's plausible that either could be ready to go at some point in the series, if not in Game 1.

Stralman, who participated in a full practice on Wednesday, is likely closer than Stamkos. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said during the series against the Islanders that he was surprised Stralman wasn't back yet. He's gone past the six-week recovery time the Lightning initially felt he'd need.

The Lightning said Stamkos would be out 1-3 months after surgery on April 4, so he's within that window. There has been no word on when or if he'll be cleared. Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had the same procedure done on Sept. 3. He was in the lineup on Nov. 1.

2. MURRAY OR FLEURY?

Pittsburgh Penguins 21-year-old rookie goalie Matt Murray has already outplayed Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals through two rounds. He might have the chance to outduel Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop too, but only if Penguins coach Mike Sullivan stays with him like he has since Game 3 of the first round against the Rangers.

Sullivan might be tempted to return the No. 1 job to Marc-Andre Fleury's capable veteran hands for Game 1 against the Lightning even though Fleury hasn't played since March 31, when he sustained his second concussion of the season.

Murray appeared in 13 regular-season NHL games before getting his first start against the Rangers. He's gone 7-2 since with a .935 save percentage. Judging by those numbers, why would Sullivan even think about taking him out?

However, Murray allowed six goals on 55 shots (.891 save percentage) in the last two games against the Capitals. Overall, he had a .926 save percentage in the second round. Fleury has been waiting and serving as Murray's backup since Game 3 against Washington.

If Murray remains Pittsburgh's No. 1 and can pull off the Lundqvist-Holtby-Bishop trifecta, the comparisons to Ken Dryden will become closer to reality.

Dryden led the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1971 after appearing in six NHL regular-season games. Sullivan has to decide if he wants Murray's story to go on, or if it's time to go back to Fleury.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Murray stops Burakovsky's breakaway

3. CLUTCH KUCHEROV

Lighting right wing Nikita Kucherov has been red-hot with a League-high nine goals in 10 games. He has almost one-third of the Lightning goals (30). Pittsburgh's top line of Crosby, Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist has one more goal than Kucherov.

Kucherov had 10 goals in 26 playoff games last year, second on the Lightning. He was considered one of Tampa Bay's top players, and he's on pace to shatter that production from last season.

Pittsburgh has made life difficult on the opposition's top players other than Capitals forward T.J. Oshie, who had five goals in the second round, including a hat trick in Game 1. If Kucherov can pull off an Oshie, it will give the Lightning a great chance of winning the series.

4. THE SID AND GENO SHOW

It's still kind of shocking that the Penguins defeated the Capitals in six games despite getting a combined one goal and three assists from Crosby and Malkin. It happened, though, which shows the depth of the Penguins.

The third line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel had 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists). They had all four goals in Game 6. Matt Cullen scored a big goal in Game 4. Tom Kuhnhackl had a goal in Game 3. Hornqvist scored the overtime winner in Game 4.

The question now is will Crosby and Malkin break out against the Lightning the way they did against the Rangers in the first round, when they each had eight points in the five-game series? Malkin had four points on two goals and two assists in Game 4.

The Penguins defeated the Presidents' Trophy winners without them showing up often on the score sheet. Imagine the damage Pittsburgh could do if Crosby and Malkin start scoring against Tampa Bay.

Video: Hornqvist wins Game 4 for Pens in OT

5. THEY'RE NOT THE NEW KIDS ANYMORE

The Lightning played the just-happy-to-be-here card in the playoffs last season, when they rambled through the Eastern Conference in 20 games before getting to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks, the experienced champions.

Now it's the Lightning who have the experience. It'll be interesting to see how it benefits them, if at all, considering the Penguins are loaded with experience too.

Last season, the Lightning deflected to that "everything is new for us" routine. They're not learning what it takes to win anymore. They're expected to win, even if they might be considered the underdog in the series by virtue of the Penguins having home-ice advantage.

Twenty of the 25 players who have played for the Lightning in the playoffs played for them last season. That's not including Stralman and Stamkos, two of their most important players who have not played in this postseason.

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