History has shown one matchup between these two Eastern Conference teams in the playoffs but it didn’t serve as a remarkable series due to a few key situations.
First off, Pittsburgh was without their top two players in Sidney Crosby who was concussed and Evgeni Malkin who had a knee injury. With a top line including a winger who was playing on the wrong side, the Penguins took a 3-1 series lead but, Tampa Bay came back and won three straight to take home the series.
Also, the Lightning went on the play the Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals but lost and the Bruins ended up winning the Stanley Cup that year. So, that’s all that matters, right? Although some key injuries may have not plagued this year’s roster, both teams look to come back full strength for a matchup of goalies and offenses for the ages as well as a true test of each teams defense.
The Lightning have survived this far without Captain Steven Stamkos as well as defenseman Anton Stralman but both players are looking better with every practice and are looking more likely to come back this series. Stralman has been through the six-week period doctors said he would be out and has skated in full practices leading up to game one of the series. Stamkos on the other hand was said to be out 1-3 months after his surgery to repair the blood clot in his collarbone. He is in this window but unlike Stralman hasn’t participated in a full skate yet.
This doesn’t mean that he wont come back this early in the series but if I was the coach, I would want a fully capable Stamkos rather than a possibility of a weary player that may reinjure what has already happened. On the upside, teammate Andrei Vasilevskiy had the same procedure as Steven and was back in 8 weeks. This would put Stamkos back in the lineup a the end of the month for the end of the series, or if they move on, the Stanley Cup Finals where he could most definitely cause some damage and help out his team.
Through the first two rounds, Penguins goalie Matt Murray has outplayed two top tier goalies, Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby and moves on to outplay Ben “Brick Wall” Bishop, if head coach Mike Sullivan decides to stay with the hot young stud in net. Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t played since March 31 after suffering his second concussion of the season, but I would stick with Murray.
Nothing is more intense than the pace of play in a Conference Final game, therefore, Fleury probably would not have his head quite back in the right state of mind come the first game. The only statistic that would make coach Sullivan even question Murray’s appearance is his .891 save percentage in the final two games against the Capitals even though they won the series. It would make history if Murray could pull off the Cinderella story only appearing in 13 regular season games and having the opportunity to help his team advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Peanut butter, grape jelly, and bread go together like Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Ondej Palat. Three players that come from three different countries but seemingly enough can play like they’ve been together since birth. They’ve grown to be Tampa Bay’s top line and have acquired the nickname, “The Triplets” due to their new found success this season and more importantly in the playoffs so far. They are an offensive threat like no other. Palat plays the role of the big guy going into the corners and digging out pucks to find Johnson looming around the zone for a quick strike or Kucherov who are always in a position to score.
Palat was drafted in the seventh round back in the 2011 draft, 105 spots after Kucherov. Johnson was passed over several times by teams before finding his role on the Lightning’s top line.
The threesome plays a full 200-foot game every time they are out on the ice. You can guarantee that Pittsburgh has been studying up on how they are going to attempt to stop these guys because quite frankly everyone else hasn’t been too successful at doing that. Kucherov has been the most productive with almost one third of Tampa’s goals only one less than Pittsburgh’s first line lead by Crosby. If the Penguins allow open space and opportunity for Kucherov to score and score often that could seem to be a big downfall and outcome of a series loss for Pittsburgh.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin look to get back on the points train after having a quite disappointing series against the Capitals. They combined for just four points and one goal the entire series, unlike their 8-point effort each during the opening round series against New York.
Despite their drought, Pittsburgh has unreal depth to their lineup to the point where overtime would come around and no one would even guess who ends up scoring the game winner. The third line alone had 18 points against the Caps. When you have a third line out scoring your first line, the opposing team doesn’t even know what to do. If the First line and second and third lines alike are running on all cylinders, they can prove to serve a tough grueling series for opposing goalie Ben Bishop. They’ll need production all around to be able to break yet another top tier goalie apart and move on.
I have become a fan of the “Triplets” but I’ve had a longer liking of the Penguins and I do think they will take the series. It wont be east but they are due for a deep run at the cup and I’d love to see Matt Murray win it all for them.
“Triplets” photo- Foxsports Matt Murray photo- SBNation Feature Image- http://www.oddsshark.com/nhl/pittsburgh-penguins-tampa-bay-lightning-betting-february-5-2016-711001