Breaking Down the NHL Eastern Conference Finals

The Eastern Conference Final is set and the Pittsburgh Penguins host the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 Friday night. This is an intriguing matchup with two similar teams. Both teams rely on speed and finesse on the offensive sides, while both have highly skilled players up and down the line. Both teams have a top defender in their midst.

On paper, it would appear that this could be a long and entertaining series. On one side you have perhaps the hottest team in the NHL over the last six weeks. On the other side, you have a team that has appeared in more playoff games than any other team over the last two years.

Much like the regular season, last year’s playoffs don’t amount to a hill of beans in this year’s playoffs. However, the experience gained by the Lightning by playing 36 playoff games since April of 2015 is invaluable. Especially, when you take into consideration that of the four remaining teams, the Lightning are the youngest by average age. For the second year in a row, the Lightning were the youngest team on average age to make the playoffs. Their playoff experience belies their youth.

Yin and Yang

In Chinese philosophy, the study of opposite forces that are interconnected is yin and yang. That is how I see the Pittsburgh – Tampa series. Two teams that seem to be cut from the same cloth. Pittsburgh has scored more goals (37) than any team in the playoffs except the St. Louis Blues, who have notched 44 goals. The other side of that coin is Tampa, who has given up less goals than any remaining team in the playoffs with 19 goals against in 10 games.

So, which team’s strength will overpower the other? Will Pittsburgh be able to continue their hot pace of almost 3.40 goals a game or will Tampa’s goalie Ben Bishop and his defensive corps continue their stingy play that effectively shut down John Tavares in the just completed Rd. 2 series? Maybe it’ll come down to which team blinks first. One of the oldest adages in all of sports is that defense wins championships.

If that holds true, the Lightning’s slight edge in this area may get a tremendous boost once Anton Stralman gets medical clearance and rejoins the team during this series. Word is he will definitely play in this series; could it be as early as Game 1?

Backstop Pressure

More similarities between the teams show up in the performance of the respective goalies. Bishop leads the playoffs with eight wins, although the Pens’ Matt Murray has seven. Among starting goalies that remain in the playoffs, Bishop is first with a goals-against average of 1.89 but Murray is second with a 2.05 GAA. Again, among starting goalies still in the hunt for the Cup, Bishop is first in save percentage with .938 and you guessed it, Murray is second with a .935 save percentage. Other than the fact that Murray, at 6 foot 4, is three inches shorter than Bishop, these two can be goaltending bookends for their superior performances through the first two rounds.

If there is an advantage, it should belong to Bishop. This is a guy who won a Game 7 in Madison Square Garden last season in the Eastern Conference Finals. The advantage of playoff experience is squarely on Tampa’s side in the net. That is not to take anything away from Murray, who held his own against Vezina finalist Braden Holtby in Pittsburgh’s series against Washington. But the kid had never played in the playoffs until a month ago and now finds himself leading his team in the Eastern Conference Final. The pressure will be intense and Bishop has been through that and Murray has not. Another slight advantage to the Lightning.

(Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)
(Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

Wild Cards

Without a doubt, the Penguins have been arguably the best team in the NHL over the last month or two. They changed coaches in December. They became healthy just as the playoffs started. They found a No. 1 goalie who was healthy and performed well enough to go out every other day and give the team a chance to win. The Lightning have been one of the best teams in the league for the last year or two.

The playoff experience in the Tampa locker room cannot be dismissed. This young team played in 26 of the 28 possible games a team can play in the NHL playoffs last season. Sure, they fell two wins shy of winning Lord Stanley’s Cup but that journey has created the foundation that finds this team on the precipice of playing for the Cup again. Their experience showed in the first two rounds. There are some so-called experts stating that the Lightning had an easy road to the conference finals as they played and beat the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders.

The fact of the matter is that the Lightning don’t choose their path to the Cup, the playoff seeds determine who plays whom. One undeniable fact is that without their top scorer and without their No. 2 defenseman for both of the first two rounds, the Lightning lost only two games. I could see the argument that they had an easy route if they allowed either series to go six or seven games.  They didn’t. They lost one game in Rd. 1 and one game in Rd. 2 without two of their best players.

For the Penguins, they have the firepower. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel make as formidable a trio as one can face in the NHL. They are healthy and, for the most part, are playing well although only Kessel is in the top 10 in points among playoff performers. Pittsburgh is getting help from guys like Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin but Tampa has three players who have as many points in the playoffs as Malkin.

Alex Killorn, Victor Hedman and Jonathan Drouin all have nine points as Malkin does and that is only one point less than Crosby and Bonino. This leaves Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov both outscoring Pittsburgh’s top scorer in Kessel. The scoring between these two teams is close. The wild card here is Steven Stamkos.

Just waiting for the surgeon to remove him from blood-thinning medication, Stamkos has been skating in a non-contact jersey for the better part of the last two weeks. The speculation is that 24 hours after stopping the medication, Stamkos will be given the green light to get back on the ice. The Lightning will already get a huge boost early in the series with the return of Stralman and third line wing, J.T. Brown, one of the best penalty killers on the team.

Imagine for a moment, perhaps during Game 6 or Game 7 or during any crucial point in the series and the Lightning captain, Stamkos, makes his way onto the ice. If it’s a home game for the Bolts, the crowd will lose control. The lift his appearance gives the Lightning is quite enough to propel his team to a repeat berth in the Stanley Cup Final. Lightning in six.