Pens-Bolts Gather for First Playoff Meeting

The closest thing to a rivalry the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning have had so far came on the final day of the 2009-10 season, when Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Bolts sophomore Steven Stamkos were duking it out for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer. Both men ended up with 51 goals and had to share a piece of that hardware.

There will be no ties, however, in this year’s first-ever playoff series between No. 4-seeded Pittsburgh and No. 5 Tampa Bay. There will also likely be no Crosby, who was on a tear toward his best season yet when he was sidelined with a concussion in early January.

Although the Penguins’ leading scorer has resumed skating with his team in recent weeks, he hasn’t been cleared for contact, and all indications are that Pittsburgh will enter the postseason without him. They’ll also be missing their other biggest offensive threat, Evgeni Malkin, who underwent season-ending knee surgery two months ago. Trade deadline acquisition James Neal is day-to-day with an injury suffered Friday at Long Island, and top penalty killer Matt Cooke is suspended through the first round of the playoffs.

On the bright side for Pittsburgh, that’s nothing new for a roster that spent the second half of the season decimated by injury. And head coach Dan Bylsma has his club playing a system that’s kept them not only competitive, but in contention for the top spot in the Eastern Conference until the final days of the regular season. This year’s Penguins finished with the second-most points (106), second-most wins (48) and tied for first in road wins (24) in franchise history.

The Bolts, meanwhile, have their big three – Martin St. Louis, Stamkos and Vinny Lecavalier – healthy and ready to suit up. St. Louis, in particular, has been a Penguin killer over the years, and he’s held true to form this season, netting five points (3G, 2A) in four games against Pittsburgh. Stamkos, too, has five points (1G, 4A) in those four contests. And the Lightning also have plenty to be proud of this year, setting a franchise record with 46 wins and tying another with 25 home wins. Their 103 points represent an impressive turnaround from last year’s 80; indeed, after three consecutive years of finishing at or near the bottom of the Southeast division and not qualifying for the playoffs, few would have expected Tampa Bay to rise so far, so fast.

Their team identity is a reflection of first-year head coach Guy Boucher, whose club has the respect of a coach who won a Stanley Cup in his first NHL season.

“Power play-wise, they’re a dangerous group,” Bylsma said. “They’re a team that plays very aggressive defensively and can be very smothering that way. They play very fast to the offensive zone and they’re a tough team to handle down low. Another strength is that they have a high work ethic and high battle level for their team. From the first guy to the last guy, whether they’re putting out Adam Hall or Steven Stamkos, they come at you hard, they come at you fast, they work diligently hard.”

That sounds an awful lot like how the Penguins like to play, which should make this matchup fast-paced and exciting. And both teams are steamrolling into the playoffs, with Pittsburgh going 8-2 in its last 10 games and Tampa Bay winning seven of its last eight.

The clubs split their season series, with the home team winning every game and Pittsburgh outscoring the Lightning 17-9. The Bolts are the only Eastern Conference team with a power play better than 20 percent (20.5), and they’ll put that up against Pittsburgh’s league-best penalty kill (86.1 percent). Neither team’s power play fared especially well in the season series, with Pittsburgh going 2-for-18 and Tampa Bay going 2-for-21. But the Penguins haven’t been faring well with the man advantage in general, converting just 15.8 percent of the time, and that’s something they’ll need to remedy in a hurry. That won’t be easy against the Lightning as, at 83.8 percent, the Bolts also boast a top-10 penalty kill.

With their biggest stars on the shelf, the Penguins will need to get their offense by committee in this series, just as they have in the regular season. They’ll be hoping for defenseman Kris Letang to regain his early-season form, and for forwards Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, Tyler Kennedy, Pascal Dupuis, Alex Kovalev and Neal, if he’s healthy, to contribute points. They’ll be looking for blueliners Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek to limit the Bolts’ chances and – most importantly – for goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who’s had a season worthy of Hart Trophy consideration, to shut them down.

And that’s where the Penguins should emerge with the advantage in this series. Pittsburgh’s blueline should prove slightly stronger and deeper than Tampa Bay’s, which features big, 20-year-old sophomore Victor Hedman. Fleury, meanwhile, at age 26, has proven to be a big-game goalie, with more playoff experience than the Bolts’ probable starter, 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson.

Lecavalier and St. Louis remain from the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup, and Simon Gagne and Ryan Malone have been to recent Cup Finals – Gagne with the Flyers last year, Malone with the Penguins in 2008 – but more of Pittsburgh’s roster remains from its 2008 Final and 2009 Cup. Combined with the Penguins’ home-ice advantage, that should be enough for Pittsburgh to eke out a win against the feisty, up-and-coming Lightning.

Prediction: Penguins in seven.

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