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The Climb

Penguins, Lightning meet in pivotal Game 3

Pittsburgh's Kessel, Tampa Bay's Hedman could be key when series shifts to Amalie Arena

by John Kreiser @jkreiser7713 / Managing Editor

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning are each three wins away from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. One team will take the next step in its climb toward a title in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

The teams split the first two games of the best-of-7 series in Pittsburgh, though the Penguins needed overtime before winning 3-2 in Game 2 on Monday.

Tampa Bay is trying to make a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final; last season, the Lightning defeated the New York Rangers in the conference final before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. The Penguins haven't been to the Cup Final since 2009, when they won the third championship in franchise history by outlasting the Detroit Red Wings in seven games.

Here are four players trying to help their teams take the next step in their climb toward the Cup.

Phil Kessel, F, Penguins - Kessel, not Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, is Pittsburgh's leading scorer in these playoffs. He tied his single-season playoff high by scoring his sixth goal in Game 2, and his 14 points are more than he has ever had in one playoff year. The third line of Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin has given the Penguins speed and scoring.

Kris Letang, D, Penguins - If the Penguins have one indispensable player, it's probably Letang, their unquestioned No. 1 defenseman. He's averaging 27:45 of ice time in this series (29:09 through Pittsburgh's first 13 playoff games), leads Pittsburgh defensemen with nine points and is tops on the team with a plus-8 rating. Letang had seven shots on goal and an assist in Game 2, and he's the player who makes the Penguins offense go.

Victor Hedman, D, Lightning - Hedman had an excellent regular season, but has taken his game to another level so far this spring. He led the Lightning past the New York Islanders in the second round with four goals and eight points, and had an assist in each of the first two games against Pittsburgh. Hedman is a shutdown defenseman who can contribute offensively, and could become even more effective now that his usual partner, Anton Stralman, has returned from a broken left fibula.

Jonathan Drouin, F, Lightning - Drouin has gone from the subject of trade discussions to a key part of Tampa Bay's offense. He scored a goal in each of the first two games of this series and has 11 points in 12 playoff games after having 10 in 21 games during a regular season in which he was injured, suspended and spent time in the minors. The 21-year-old is playing like the game-breaker the Lightning thought they were getting when they selected him with the third pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.

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