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Eastern Conference Final Series Storylines: Penguins vs. Lightning

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins vs. Flyers Round One Schedule:

Wednesday, April 11 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Friday, April 13 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
Sunday, April 15 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 3:00 p.m. - NBC
Wednesday, April 18 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Friday, April 20 - Philadelphia at PITTSBURGH - 7:30 p.m. - ROOT SPORTS
*Sunday, April 22 - Pittsburgh at Philadelphia - TBD - TBD
*Tuesday, April 24 - Tampa Bay at PITTSBURGH - TBD - TBD

Pittsburgh Penguins
Overall: 48-26-8
VS Tampa Bay Lightning
Overall: 46-31-5
Home: 25-13-3

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Gm 1 Friday, May 13  8:00PM
Gm 2 Monday, May 16 8:00PM
Gm 3 Wednesday, May 18 8:00PM
Gm 4 Friday, May 20
Gm 5 *
Sunday, May 22 8:00PM
Gm 6 *
Tuesday, May 24
Gm 7 *
Thursday, May 26
Games marked in BOLD indicate home games.
* If necessary
All times EDT
  F Beau Bennett, undisclosed
F Pascal Dupuis, IR
F Kevin Porter, ankle surgery
F Scott Wilson, lower body
  F J.T. Brown, upper-body
F Erik Condra, upper-body
F Steven Stamkos, blood clot
D Anton Stralman, fractured leg


The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning will meet in the Eastern Conference Final. The Pens advanced after defeating the Washington Capitals in six games, while the Bolts moved on after defeating the New York Islanders in five games. Here are the main storylines to follow...

Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay have met just once before in the postseason, when they played each other during the Eastern Conference quarterfinals back in 2011. That year, the Lightning recovered from a 3-1 series deficit to win in seven games. The Pens appeared to be on their way to running away with the series when James Neal scored in double overtime of Game 4, but Tampa Bay’s revival began with a decisive victory in Game 5.

Only four players on the Pens’ current roster participated in that first-round matchup – Kris Letang, Ben Lovejoy, Chris Kunitz and Marc-Andre Fleury – as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both missed the entire series due to injury.

Crosby was out for the entire second half of the season after being diagnosed with a concussion; while Malkin suffered a torn ACL in a game against Buffalo on March 29.

While the Pens were without their franchise centers that year, the Bolts could be without theirs this year. Lighting captain Steven Stamkos had surgery on April 4 to treat a blood clot in his right arm and was given an expected recovery time of 1-3 months. The center was red-hot prior to the injury, tallying 14 goals and 22 points in his last 21 games. Overall, he had 36 goals and 64 points in 77 regular-season games.

Tampa Bay has also been missing Anton Stralman, who suffered a broken leg in a game against the Islanders on March 25 after being a tremendous all-around defenseman for the Bolts and developing into quite the Pens killer – scoring four of his eight total goals against Pittsburgh during the regular season. Stralman, who was teammates with fellow Swede Carl Hagelin in New York, joined full team practice for the first time on Wednesday but stated it’s “hard to say” when he’ll be back.

Either way, despite missing two key players, the Bolts found a way to advance to the Eastern Conference Final – and if they get either or both of those guys back at some point this series, a team that’s already deep and dangerous will be even more deadly.

Entering the third round, the Pens’ offense was ranked first while the Bolts were ranked third. However, neither team necessarily relied on their superstars in the second round and both showcased their offensive depth.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper reunited his ‘Triplets’ line of Ondej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov against the Islanders, and that trio led the attack in Stamko’s absence. Kucherov is the NHL’s leading scorer with nine goals so far this postseason, and was the club’s leading point producer during the regular season as well – finishing with 30 goals and 66 points. Meanwhile, Johnson paces the Lightning with 13 points (4G-9A) through two rounds.

Those two in particular have been strong against Pittsburgh. Johnson has 11 points (5G-6A) in 10 career appearances against the Pens, including an active six-game point streak. Meanwhile, Kucherov has eight points (2G-6A) in seven career games against Pittsburgh – though he has gone without a goal in his last four. In addition, their line of Alex Killorn, Valtteri Filppula and Jonathan Drouin was also strong; they got big goals from Brian Boyle in the bottom-six; and defenseman Victor Hedman finished with four tallies.

On the other bench, after ranking first and second in team scoring during the First Round with a combined 15 points, Crosby and Malkin were limited to just four combined points in the Second Round. That meant other guys had to step up, and they did. The trio of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel was dominant in the series, overwhelming the Caps with their speed. Hagelin led the team with seven points (3G-4A) in the second round, while Kessel is now the team leader in scoring with 12 points (5G-7A) and Bonino is now tied for second with 10 (2G-8A).

Names like Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley, Eric Fehr, Patric Hornqvist, Tom Kuhnhackl and Ben Lovejoy all joined them in the goal column. As head coach Mike Sullivan has repeatedly said, the team isn’t about any one or two players – it’s about the group.

That mindset will continue to be important considering that Crosby and Malkin will likely be seeing a lot of Hedman. Back when the Pens and Lightning first met in the 2011 playoffs, he was a still-emerging 20-year-old best known for knocking Crosby out of the lineup. Five years later, he’s developed into the elite defenseman the Lightning expected when they chose him with the second overall pick in the 2009 draft. And right now, Hedman is having his second-straight monstrous postseason.

He was matched up against Islanders captain John Tavares – drafted first overall that same year – in the last round and held him scoreless in the final four games of the series. Hedman was perhaps even more dominant at the other end of the ice, racking up four goals and eight points. Whoever gets tasked with going up against the 6-foot-6 Swede is going to have their work cut out for them.

The same goes for whichever Bolts players share the ice with Kris Letang, who has been just as strong on the other blue line. The Pens defenseman has been absolutely invaluable to his team, logging at least 30 minutes in four of his five appearances in the series while missing Game 4 with a suspension – one of just two defensemen in Round 2 averaging that much time. He also recorded points (1G-5A) in six of his last eight games.

General manager Jim Rutherford and his staff deserve full credit for transforming the Pens into a high-speed, offensive team beginning during the summer, and continuing in season. It all started in June, when the team acquired Phil Kessel in a blockbuster deal from Toronto. It cumulated with the arrivals of Carl Hagelin – arguably the NHL’s fastest player – and mobile defenseman Trevor Daley in the second half. It was complemented along the way with young speedsters like Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust coming up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and making a difference with their relentless puck pursuit.

Down the stretch and into the playoffs, the Pens have overwhelmed their opponents in that regard. Caps head coach Barry Trotz commented on that after his team was eliminated in Game 6, saying, "Right through the lineup, they've got real good team speed. Hagelin's got exceptional speed. They throw a lot of pucks to let him go 100 feet down the ice and track him down, so he's a difficult match because of his speed.”

However, now the Pens will be going up against a team who is their match in that regard – and actually overwhelmed them at times during the regular season, before Pittsburgh had fully developed into the fast group they are now. The Lightning won all three matchups, outscoring the Pens 15-9. It will be interesting to see how the teams stack up against each other, and who can execute their game plan better. 

Pens rookie goaltender Matt Murray took down future Hall-of-Famer Henrik Lundqvist in Round 1 and followed that up by slightly edging out probable Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby in the second round. His reward? A matchup against another 2015-16 Vezina Trophy finalist in Ben Bishop, who has led his team to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals.

Much like the Pens, the Lightning got off to a slow start offensively. Despite their talented forward group, Tampa Bay’s biggest problem through the first couple months of the season was scoring. As a result, they relied heavily upon their hulking 6-foot-7 netminder, who ended up backstopping the regular season’s fifth-ranked defense – one slot above the Pens. Bishop had a career year, winning 35 games while posting personal bests with a 2.06 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.

The 29-year-old St. Louis native carried that strong play into the postseason, as Bishop posted a .938 save percentage and 1.89 goals-against average through the first two rounds. He made 28 saves in their 4-0 blanking of the Islanders in Game 5 (his fourth straight win), giving him four shutouts in Tampa Bay’s last five series-clinching wins dating back to last year’s playoffs – which is tied with Jacques Plante and Martin Brodeur for the second-most such wins in NHL history after Chris Osgood’s five.

At the other end, Murray – who has never played against Tampa Bay – is also coming in hot. The 21-year-old Ontario native has a seven-game home winning streak and an eight-game home unbeaten streak (8-0-1), including the regular season. He is 7-2 so far these playoffs, posting a sparkling numbers of his own with a .934 save percentage and 2.05 goals-against average.

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