Penguins: Lightning Pose Challenge

Feb 20, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Carl Hagelin (62) moves the puck against Tampa Bay Lightning center Valtteri Filppula (51) during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 20, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Carl Hagelin (62) moves the puck against Tampa Bay Lightning center Valtteri Filppula (51) during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Penguins begin their Eastern Conference Finals series versus the Tampa Bay Lightning Friday at Consol Energy Center.

The dust had barely settled on the Penguins 4-3 overtime series-clinching victory against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night when captain Sidney Crosby was asked during his on-ice interview what he expected from the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Crosby’s reply came with minimal hesitation – fast hockey.

The Lightning are one of the few teams that can match the Penguins in team swiftness, setting up a series that has all the makings of a thriller. Tampa Bay is back in the Conference Finals for a second straight year after defeating the New York Rangers last season before falling to Chicago in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Penguins are making their fourth Conference Finals appearance in the last eight years.

Tampa Bay won the season series between the two clubs 3-0, 2 of those wins came in the early days of Mike Sullivan’s tenure as head coach when needless to say the Pens were a dramatically different team than they are now.

Penguins Keys to Victory

Third Line Thunder – The fact that players like Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin are “third line” players is a testament to just how deep this current Penguins roster is. Add in a guy by the name of Nick Bonino who netted the OT winner against the Caps and has been playing not too shabby himself throughout the playoffs and you have the top producing unit on a team that not too long ago was considered just a two-man show. If the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel or HBK line continues to click and produce the Penguins will give the Lightning plenty of fits, with a legitimate scoring punch on the ice at all times rather than the “break” from Crosby and Evgeni Malkin that opponents once sought to capitalize on.

Cup-Contender Composure – The deeper a team gets into the playoffs, the more critical it becomes to avoid costly penalties. The Penguins were able to overcome some big mistakes against Washington – Kris Letang’s one game suspension for a high hit on Marcus Johansson in Game 3 and a rash of ill-advised delay of game penalties that caused a three-goal lead to evaporate in the deciding Game 6 – but playing with fire eventually leads to getting burnt. The Penguins need to play aggressive but smart at the same time – this Lightning club can beat them on their own merits if the Pens aren’t at their best.  There is no need to give them more of a chance to do so through penalties.

Lightning Keys to Victory

Big Ben – Perhaps the only netminder who has matched Matt Murray’s brilliance in these playoffs is the one that will be his counterpart in the series, Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop. While the Penguins vanquished one Vezina Trophy contender in Washington’s Braden Holtby, they’ll jump right back into the fire against Bishop, who at 6’7” is a monster in goal and has notched four shutouts this postseason. Bishop is the type of goaltender who can take the wind right out of a team’s sails and he’ll need to do just that against a Penguins offense that is currently flying high. We saw how Murray made the Capitals visibly frustrated by making save after brilliant save; Bishop will need to do the same against the Penguins to give his club the best chance at making a return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Stamkos Surprise – One of the NHL’s top scorers and most dynamic players, Steven Stamkos has been out of the Lightning lineup since early April with a blood clot. The fact that the Bolts have continued their winning ways without him is a testament to their own depth. Stamkos has been skating in practice for some time and while he isn’t scheduled to play in Game 1, Tampa hasn’t ruled out a potential return later in the series. He is still on blood thinners, which makes it almost impossible for him to play.  But if #91 were to lace up the skates against the Penguinss it would give Tampa Bay not only a scoring lift, but also a huge emotional one as well, something that can often propel a team over the hump in a tightly-contested playoff series.


This is setting up to be a series of “anything you can do I can do better” as it pits two clubs with tremendous speed, solid depth and hot goaltenders against each other. It’s sure to make for some exciting or unnerving, hockey games. While Tampa Bay is most definitely equipped to knock off the Penguins, to do so they’ll have to overcome something that all too often has shown to be just as critical as talent and matchups if not more so come playoff time – momentum.

Next: Crosby Deserves MVP

The Penguins are the hottest team in hockey over the last two and a half months and are in the driver’s seat of their own playoff destiny. They will close out the series in six games.