For the Tampa Bay Lightning, Wednesday night's Game 4 against the Pittsburgh Penguins is not technically a must-win. But it's pretty close. A win ties their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal at two games apiece. A loss sends the series back to Pittsburgh with the Lightning facing elimination in Saturday's Game 5.
The Lightning have dominated the special-teams battle in this series. They have four power-play goals (two each in Games 2 and 3) and they have killed off all 15 of Pittsburgh's man advantages. Yet they trail in the series because of five-on-five play -- the Penguins have a 6-1 goals advantage when both teams are at full strength. (edit: one of the Lightning's even-strength goals was in a 4-on-4.) As coach Guy Boucher told the St. Petersburg Times:
"They're a little sharper around our net five-on-five than we are around their net. We're not going to score five or six goals five-on-five against (Marc-Andre) Fleury. Chances are he might let in one five-on-five, but if we do score one or two on the power play, it has to be enough at home to win a game."
While many aspects of the pre-lockout NHL are hopefully gone forever, one piece of it has resurfaced in this series. The team scoring the first goal has won all three games in the series, and that first goal is critical because the team that scores it can go to work defending that lead. For the Lightning, that means going to a more passive version of their 1-3-1 forecheck. For the Penguins, it's challenging puck-carriers and getting their sticks in the passing and shooting lanes.
The series has also been a physical one. Both teams have landed heavy hits on each other in every game, which is just the way playoff hockey goes. This morning's Tampa Tribune has an article on the hitting in this series, with quotes from Boucher and several players, including captain Vincent Lecavalier:
"Instead of there being 15 hits in a game, there are 40. So you get more beat up for sure. Everybody's shoulders are hurting, everybody is running into the boards 100 mph. It's just more intense. Everybody finishes their checks, because that's just the way the playoffs are."
The hitting crossed the line in Game 3. Both Steve Downie of the Lightning and Chris Kunitz of the Penguins will sit this game out after being suspended by the NHL for their dangerous hits. Each of the suspended players missed significant time this season (Downie was out injured for 25 games, while Kunitz missed 16 with his own injury issues), so their teams are at least a little used to not having them available. The Lightning called up Blair Jones and Mattias Ritola from Norfolk of the AHL, which hints at other lineup changes in addition to filling Downie's spot.