With all of the injuries that the Penguins have faced this year, not many people would have guessed a few months ago that they would even make the playoffs, let alone be seeded highly enough to have home-ice advantage in the first round. That is exactly the place the Pens find themselves in, as they get ready to square off against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. While the Lightning aren’t a rival like the Washington Capitals or Philadelphia Flyers, it will still make for an interesting matchup. The teams split the season series, with both teams taking their two home games. You may remember that it was against the Lightning that Sidney Crosby played his last game of the regular season, in which he suffered a concussion with a hit from behind by Victor Hedman. One of the storylines going into this matchup is whether or not Crosby will make his return. So far, Crosby has practiced with the team, but hasn’t taken part in contact drills.
The two teams are polar opposites in many ways, which will make this such a great matchup to watch. Tampa Bay is second in the league with 69 power play goals, which represents 29% of their total goals. Pittsburgh is first in the league in the penalty kill at 86%, so it will be interesting to see which team will prevail on special teams. The thing about Tampa Bay’s power play is that they have given up a league-worst 16 short-handed goals, largely due to the fact that they use four forwards and only one defenseman on the ice. The Penguins have scored 13 short-handed goals, good for second-best in the league. Look for the Penguins to try to capitalize on any mistakes the Lightning will make. The Penguins’ penalty kill unit has taken a step back ever since the suspension of Matt Cooke, so players like Craig Adams, Max Talbot and Jordan Staal, really will have to step it up in order for the Pens to win this series.
While Tampa can fill the net on any given night, the Penguins struggle to put the puck in the net. With Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out, Tyler Kennedy has been the only consistent scorer night in and night out. Even defenseman Kris Letang has taken a step back since the Crosby injury, posting a -8 plus/minus rating. The deadline trade for James Neal and Alex Kovalev hasn’t worked the way that the team had hoped, at least not yet. Both players have played extremely well, but they only have a goal apiece thus far since being dealt to the Pens. In order for the Penguins to win this series, either Neal or Kovalev will have to find the twine and get on a hot streak.
A huge advantage for the Penguins is at goaltender and defense. The Lightning will be relying on 41-year old Dwayne Roloson, while the Penguins will bring out their team MVP of this season, Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins also have arguably the top four defensemen in the league in Brooks Orpik, Letang, Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek. While I don’t look for the Pens to stop the Lightning, I expect them to be able to slow them down a bit and help out Fleury. The Lightning’s firepower comes on offense with Steve Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Dominic Moore, Simon Gagne, and former Penguins Ryan Malone and Adam Hall. The one person I can promise you that all Penguins fans will hate by the end of the series, if not the first couple games, is Steve Downie. Downie is the Lightning’s tough guy. Think of it as playing against Cooke or Scotty Hartnell. He’s that pest that will get under a team’s collective skin until they break.
In order for the Penguins to win this series, they need to capitalize on mistakes by the Lightning, limit the penalties they take, and most importantly, score on the power play. When it’s all said and done, I like the Lightning to beat the Penguins in 6 games. The Pens will control the game, but just won’t be able to score enough goals. While the Penguins had 106 points this season, many were earned in the shootout, something the Penguins won’t be able to count on in the playoffs. Roloson is a conditioning freak and his body won’t break down in the first round. If needed, backup Mike Smith is more than serviceable for the Lightning. The Penguins have been the underdog all year, so it really is anyone’s guess what will happen. I never like to be wrong, but in this case, here’s to hoping the Penguins prove me wrong and advance to the next round.
About the Author
Written by Michael Waterloo
I'm currently pursuing my Master's degree in Communication and Journalism from Clarion University. I currently work for Ohio Valley Athletics where I serve as the West Virginia Football Beat Writer and cover West Virginia Men's Basketball as well. I'm a big Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers and Oregon Ducks fan. Follow me on Twitter at @MichaelWaterloo or visit www.ovathletics.com