Eastern Conference Final Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning attempt to win their second straight Eastern Conference title against the Pittsburgh Penguins, seeking their first conference crown since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. Who takes it? Let’s find out, shall we?

How’d They Get Here?

The prevailing narrative appears to be the Tampa Bay Lightning have had the “easier” road to the Eastern Conference Final. Tampa’s first and second round series against the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders both ended in five games.

Pittsburgh dispatched of the New York Rangers in five games. The series against the Washington Capitals was bruising and emotional, lasting six games. With the exception of Game 5, all games were decided by a single goal, and three of those came in overtime.

Their Last Playoff Meeting

Back in 2010-11, the No. 4 Lightning and No. 5 Penguins faced off in the first round. The Penguins were without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin due to injuries and blew a 3-1 series lead. The Lightning were led by crusty veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson to a 1-0 victory in Game 7.

Schedule

Fri 5/13, 8pm: TBL @ PIT | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports

Mon 5/16, 8pm: TBL @ PIT | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports

Wed 5/18, 8pm: PIT @ TBL | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports

Fri 5/20, 8pm: PIT @ TBL | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports

*Sun 5/22, 8pm:  TBL @ PIT | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports

*Tue 5/24, 8pm:  PIT @ TBL | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports

*Thu 5/26, 8pm:  TBL @ PIT | NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports

Offense

Just like everyone predicted, the Penguins offense is led by … Nick Bonino, Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel? As a trio, they have contributed 4 goals and 8 assists. This is due in large part to the Capitals negating Crosby and Malkin to the tune two points each in the entire six game series after they combined for 15 points in the first round against the Rangers.

Kessel leads the Penguins in total points with 12 (5 goals, 7 assists). Bonino is tied with Crosby for second at 10 points. Kris Letang (8 points) and Trevor Daley (6 points) lead the defense in point production.

Making up for the absence of Crosby and Malkin has revealed the depth scoring for the Penguins. All but three Pittsburgh players that have played in a playoff game have recorded at least one point. Pittsburgh has seven players with 8 points or more in the playoffs.

According to Corsica, Tampa’s score adjusted 5-on-5 Corsi For playoff percentage is slightly better than Pittsburgh at 51.51 to 49.33.

Having not found the same success this postseason as they had in the past, the Triplets Line for Tampa has evolved into Triplets 2.0 with Killorn replacing Ondrej Palat alongside Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov. Killorn leads the Lightning in score adjusted 5-on-5 CF% at 56.52 in the playoffs with Kucherov right behind him at 55.57 (via Corsica).

Kucherov is tied with Joe Pavelski for the league lead in playoff goals at 9. Johnson leads the team with 13 points followed by Kucherov at 12. Victor Hedman, Jonathan Drouin, and Killorn are tied at 9 points each. Against the Islanders, defenseman Victor Hedman had 8 points over five games.

Tampa has five players with 9 points or more, and it drops off to six points for the next highest.

Advantage: Push

Defense

Matt Murray has been a revelation for the Penguins after the Jeff Zatkoff experiment didn’t go so well. In his first ever Stanley Cup playoff run, Murray is 7-2-1 with .935 save percentage and 2.05 goals against.

The Pittsburgh defense held the dynamic offense of the Washington Capitals to an average of 2.5 goals against per game over the six game series.

Far and away, Kris Letang is the leader of the Penguins defense. When he was suspended against the Capitals, most figured the team was doomed without him and his average 29:26 TOI per game. The defensive group rallied and won the game due in large part to Trevor Daley sliding into Letang’s role.

Olli Maatta is a big question mark for the Penguins. Returning to the lineup against Washington late in the series, he looked tentative. Can you blame him? Brooks Orpik shook his brain around. Pittsburgh is going to need his speed to keep up with the quick Lightning.

Tampa is averaging a 1.90 goals against in 10 playoff games. This is due in large part to Ben Bishop. The Vezina nominee is 8-2-0 with .938 save percentage, 1.89 GAA, and 2 shutouts. He’s had only one hiccup so far when he allowed 4 goals on 13 shots.

Hedman shoulders much of the defensive burden without Anton Strahlman in the lineup. Per Corsica, Hedman, along with Braydon Coburn, Jason Garrison, and Nikita Nesterov are all positive possession 5-on-5 defenders.

Advantage: Push

Special Teams

After finishing the regular season at 18.4 percent on the power play, the Penguins improved to 27.5 percent in the playoffs. Much of that success is credited to the 8 power play goals scored against the Rangers in the first round. Against the Capitals, the Penguins were held to only 3 power play goals. Phil Kessel is the top producer for Pittsburgh with the extra man scoring 4 goals and 3 assists. On the penalty kill, the Penguins remain near their regular season success rate at 83.3 percent; however, it started to crack against Washington.

From Dan Rosen of NHL.com:

The Penguins were 0-for-14 on the power play but 11-for-12 on the PK in the first four games; they were 3-for-8 on the power play but 4-for-8 on the PK in Games 5 and 6.

The saving grace for the Penguins PK may be the struggles of the Lightning’s power play. They were an astonishingly low 15.8 percent during the regular season, and that has improved only slightly during the playoffs to 16.3 percent. At Amalie Arena, Tampa has received 28 power play opportunities and only converted on 3 for 10.7 percent. They fared much better away from home with 4 power play goals on 15 opportunities for 26.7 percent. Jonathan Drouin (5 assists) leads the team with power play points, and Nikita Kucherov’s 3 goals is the team high.

Tampa’s penalty kill is clicking at 88.4 percent allowing only 5 goals against in 43 short handed situations.

Advantage: Penguins

Coaching

Mike Sullivan served as an assistant under John Tortorella in Vancouver, New York, and Tampa finding success at most opportunities. He’s in his second run as an NHL head coach. Prior to the Penguins, he coached the 2003-04 Boston Bruins to a first place finish in the division and a first round exit. He turned the Penguins around after taking over for Mike Johnston, and led the team past the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals.

The only time the Lightning haven’t made the playoffs under Jon Cooper is in his first season with the team when he took over for Guy Boucher. For the second straight year, the Lightning have gone to the Eastern Conference Final. Last year they beat the New York Rangers to go to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.

Advantage: Lightning

Five Key Questions

1. Steven Stamkos practiced on Friday for the first time without a no-contact jersey. When is he going to get back in the lineup, and what impact will he have on the team’s chemistry?

2. Is Matt Murray going to Cam Ward this playoff run for the Penguins, or do we end up seeing Marc-Andre Fleury at some point?

3. Can the Penguins secondary scoring keep it up while Sid and Geno are in a lull?

4. Tampa last played on May 8. Will rust factor in?

5. Is Pittsburgh in for an emotional letdown after a tense series against their bitter rivals?

Prediction

Lightning in 7. This is a genuinely difficult series to pick. Tampa feels like a sleeping giant. Ben Bishop is having a monster playoffs and could be the difference maker. All eyes are on the Penguins. If Crosby and Malkin don’t wake up and the secondary scoring goes dry, the Penguins can’t get to the promised land; a place Tampa was just a year ago.