When describing how their teams matched up, both the Pens and the Lightning used the word ‘speed’ a lot.
“Just fast hockey games,” captain Sidney Crosby said when asked what he remembered about the regular-season series. “Individually, both teams have a lot of guys who can skate, but it’s who can move the puck quicker and execute that fast pace that’s probably going to be the difference.”
The way they define that word, however, isn’t necessarily the same. For the Pens, it’s about team speed all throughout their lineup. As Lightning head coach Jon Cooper pointed out, it starts on Pittsburgh’s back end with guys like Kris Letang and Trevor Daley.
“We had (Islanders defenseman) Nick Leddy from the last series that can transport a puck 200 feet, he’s blessed with speed,” he said. “Well, Kris Letang has that in his game. Trevor Daley’s got that game. They’ve got a lot of speed and skating ability on the back end and they use it really effectively.”
On the front end, Pens general manager Jim Rutherford acquired Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin to help transform their forward group in that regard while young speedsters like Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust came up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and stood out with their relentless puck pursuit.
However, Hagelin may have been the biggest reason for the Pens’ transformation into a much faster team, as he’s arguably the quickest player in the NHL and can just blow opponents away in foot races.
"Right through the lineup, they've got real good team speed. Hagelin's got exceptional speed,” Caps head coach Barry Trotz said after his team was eliminated by the Pens in six games in the Second Round. “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.”
The Bolts don’t necessarily have a player who stands out in that regard, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a quick group – especially up top.
“Our team is a fast team game. As for them, they have shifty forwards,” Letang explained. “It’s just different. I don’t see their speed built the same way as the Rangers. The Rangers were pure speed, the wings were pure speed.”
Like Hagelin, I asked?
“Yeah, exactly,” Letang replied. “Tampa Bay is more shifty; quick. You can’t give them time and space. They’re going to make plays.”
I followed up by asking him is it something where as a defenseman, you don’t have to worry as much about one of them barreling down the ice in a straight line the way someone like Chris Kreider did?
“It’s more in the zone and with their transition game,” Letang answered. “They find that quick first pass.”
While the players are expecting a fast pace, they also acknowledged that they haven’t played each other since Feb. 20 – and both teams have changed a lot since then. But they’re looking forward to seeing how they match up now a few months later.
“I think it’s going to be a hell of a series,” winger Patric Hornqvist said. “Going to be a lot of speed. We just have to take the momentum right away here at home and come out flying and get our fans into it and get engaged right away and go from there.”