The Tampa Bay Lightning are back in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2007, and their quest to win the franchise's second Cup begins tonight with Game 1 of their first-round matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Tonight's game starts at 7:00pm from the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, airing on Sun Sports.
The big question leading into the series is whether Penguins captain Sidney Crosby will be able to play. Crosby last played on January 5 against the Lightning, when he suffered a concussion after a hit by Victor Hedman into the glass. It's still not clear whether Crosby had already been feeling any ill effects from a head shot by Washington's David Steckel in the Winter Classic a few days earlier, but regardless, he has not been in the Pittsburgh lineup since that game. While Crosby has been skating with the team at practices during the past couple of weeks, his return is still uncertain. Without him, Tampa Bay has a decided advantage in offensive firepower, because the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin was also lost for the season in early February with a torn ACL. Besides Crosby, Kris Letang was the only other Penguin to reach 50 points (8 goals, 42 assists). Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz must continue to be the offensive leaders for Pittsburgh to advance.
Without Crosby and Malkin, Pittsburgh has reinvented themselves as a defensive-oriented team. Since Crosby left the lineup, the Penguins have allowed either zero or one goal in a game 11 times, and they finished with the NHL's top-ranked penalty killing unit at 86.2%. That defensive focus may have helped Marc-Andre Fleury record a 2.18 goals-against average and receive some Hart Trophy buzz. But it was truly a team effort, led by Letang, Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, and a group of hard-nosed, two-way forwards.
While the Penguins are low on scorers, the Lightning have all of theirs ready to go after breaking out of a prolonged slump that spanned most of March and may have cost them a division title. Steven Stamkos (45 goals) and Martin St. Louis (a career-high 99 points) are the offensive leaders, while captain Vincent Lecavalier made a late push to finish with 25 goals and 54 points in 65 games. Simon Gagne, Ryan Malone, and sparkplug Steve Downie also fought injuries during the regular season, but they're all healthy heading into the postseason. The Lightning were also strong on special teams, ranking fifth in the NHL with a 20.5% success rate on the power play, and eighth in the league with an 83.8% penalty kill rate. Stamkos finished with 17 power-play goals on the season, second only to Vancouver's Daniel Sedin. If they can continue scoring goals in this series, it will be hard for the depleted Penguins to keep up.
Tampa Bay's issues are on defense and in goal. While two midseason additions (defenseman Eric Brewer and goaltender Dwayne Roloson) were beneficial, the Lightning still gave up 240 goals this season, the most of any playoff team. There were several tailspin losses bloating that total, a possible byproduct of coach Guy Boucher's aggressive offensive system. But this is not exactly a lockdown defensive group. They also are vulnerable to allowing shorthanded goals. The Lightning led the NHL with 16 shorties allowed, and the Penguins tied for second with 13 short-handed goals scored.
Fortunately the series should be low on fisticuffs and questionable behavior. Pittsburgh owner Mario Lemieux was especially vocal about hits to the head after an ugly game against the New York Islanders in February, and his team will be without all-around miscreant Matt Cooke for this series. The NHL suspended Cooke for the last 10 games of the regular season and this entire series after he landed an elbow to the jaw of the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh on March 22. The Penguins seem to be making a concerted effort to rid themselves of bad actors (they fully supported the Cooke suspension), and it would be out of character for the Lightning to begin gooning it up at this point in the season.
It all boils down to a classic offense vs. defense battle in this series. Which (and who) will prevail?
Follow Tampa Bay on their Stanley Cup playoff run at Raw Charge, SB Nation's Lightning blog.