The Tampa Bay Lightning are returning to the post season for the first time in four years but are seeking to end a series win draught of seven years. Tampa Bay has not won a playoff series since defeating the Calgary Flames to win the Stanley Cup back in 2004.
If the Lightning hope to end their seven-year winless draught in the playoffs, they must get past the big bad Pittsburgh Penguins. Led by head coach Dan Bylsma, the Penguins finished with 106 points, which was the second most in franchise history.
That is saying something for Bylsma’s boys considering the list of Hall of Famers that wore the black and gold in years past. It also quite a feat considering they did this without the help of Sidney Crosby for exactly half of the season and Evgeni Malkin, who missed 39 games.
Pittsburgh called frequently on their AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins to fill the gaps. Bylsma turned the Penguins into a defensive juggernaut that killed penalties as if they had Adonis DNA and Tiger blood in them.
The Pens finished as the No.1 ranked team in the league in short-handed situations and seventh in the league defensively. The Penguins allowed 2.39 goals per game and were led by All-Star goalie and Vizena candidate, Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury was sensational this season and fell just two wins short of the league leading 38 victories shared by Montreal’s Carey Price and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo.
So how will Guy Boucher and his Tampa Bay Lightning win four games against the Penguins you ask? Tampa must do something that they have struggled with all season long, winning the third period.
Tampa must use their high-powered offense to score early and as often as they can and then hang on for the third period ride. The Lightning boasts three lines of scoring depth and each line has a nice mix of youth and veteran leadership.
Tampa Bay scored 247 goals this season which was good for second in the Eastern Conference.
Defensively, Tampa is the not the worst team in the playoffs in terms of goal average per game. That distinction belongs to the Detroit Red Wings but they are the worst in the eastern conference.
The Bolts net minder, 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson was acquired on January 1 for just this very reason, his 14 years of experience in the NHL.
Roloson, who has less playoff experience than does Marc-Andre fleury, should be enough to hold down an average Pittsburgh offense. The Pens did average 5.25 goals over their last four games but those games were against the Panthers, Devils, Islanders, and Thrashers.
Prior to that stretch, Pittsburgh scored three or more goals just five times in their previous 19 games.
The Lightning were horrible this season in the final stanza allowing 88 goals in the final frame, which was fifth worst in the league. They were outscored by 24 goals during the final 20 minutes of play and the 64 goals they did manage to score ranked 26th in the league.
In contrast, the Bolts scored 82 times in the first period (2nd in NHL) and added 87 more tallies in the middle frame (7th in the NHL), outscoring the opposition by a combined 28 goals over the first 40 minutes.
The Bolts are led by the dynamic duo of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Both players combined to score for 76 goals, 114 assists, and 190 points.
Stamkos struggled over the final quarter of the season. He scored just four goals in his last 21 games but still managed to finish second behind Anaheim’s Corey Perry in the NHL goal-scoring race with 45 markers and he ranked fifth overall with 91 points.
The Bolts must get better goal scoring production from Stamkos in the playoffs if they are to go deep into the spring.
St.Louis did not struggle to close out the season as he finished with 14 points in his final nine games. St.Louis finished second in overall scoring with 99 points, with his 68 helpers also ranking second in the league.
Pittsburgh’s top ranked penalty kill will be tested, as the Bolts finished with the Eastern Conference’s top-ranked power play. The Lightning converted 20.5-percent of their extra man advantages.
However, even with the extra man the opposition can still score against the Lightning. Tampa Bay allowed a league high 16 shorthanded goals, half of them coming in the final period.
What this all really means is do you like the Bolts ability to get out front and hold on or do you like the Penguins ability without their top offensive performers to come back late in the game?
Pittsburgh will not out skate the Lightning in the early stages of the contest. The Bolts are too fast for them.For me it is simple. I like Tampa Bay to score early and then hold on and I base that on one stat.
With a 0-19-1 record, the Pens are the NHL’s worst team when trailing after two periods this season and with the Lightning scoring as they do in the first and second periods, this series will be harder for Pittsburgh to control than it will be for Tampa Bay to lose.
The Bolts and Pens met four times this season with the home team winning each game. The Pens outscored the Lightning 17-9 in the four contests but if you saw the March 31 contest then you probably witnessed a preview to this series.
The Lightning were able to score twice in the first period and then not again for the entire game. The Penguins were held scoreless for the first two periods and then making the final 15 minutes a nail bitter, scored early in the third period to cut the lead in half.
The Bolts held on to win 2-1 but it was not easy. That game is how I predict this series will look.
This series will be the first team to three goals wins the game and that team is likely to be the Tampa Bay Lightning. In the end, the Bolts will win four games before the Penguins do and they should be able to do it in six games.
Unless the Penguins find some more offense in their arsenal, they will just have to settle for being the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup next year.
With a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin back next year to join Marc-Andre Fleury and a group of young players that succeeded before their time this year, how could they not be favorites next season to win their fourth cup?