A case for the Tampa Bay Lightning versus the Pittsburgh Penguins

Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis are the only two guys to have managed to stick around since the 2004 Stanley Cup Championship.  Pavel Kubina was on that 2004 Cup-winning team as well. However, he signed with Toronto as a free agent in 2006, was traded to Atlanta in 2009, and then re-signed as a free agent with the Lightning last summer.

As most fans know, this is the first time since 2007 that the Lightning have been in the playoffs, and they'll be playing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. This is actually a good matchup for Tampa Bay. The Penguins will be without Evgeni Malkin, and probably without Sidney Crosby. Without those two guys, Pittsburgh's now an above average team instead of one of the elites in the NHL.

Of course, there is a chance that Crosby will come back during the first round, no matter how much the Penguins try to deny that. But while he'd definitely give that team an emotional lift, he probably won't be an impact player in terms of hard numbers, statistics, and what he does on the ice. So that could play out either way for the Penguins - he'll either be an asset or a liability if he plays.

Guy Boucher's much-touted unconventional system was built for playoffs. It's a very up-tempo system that focuses on players being in constant motion. Since the Lightning have played that way all season, that will benefit them in a long series and/or if they go deep into playoffs. While other teams will be run ragged and playing solely on adrenaline, particularly late in a series, the Lightning will be used that aggressive pace. Because of that, they'll likely still have energy for more of the same when other teams are dragging.

 

The downside is that the Lightning's overall team defense is lacking. They commit too fully to the offensive zone and have to scramble back to cover breakaways. They led the league in allowing shorthanded goals during the regular season; they've allowed 16. Two of those goals came on the same penalty kill in the same game - ironically, against Pittsburgh early in the season.

They start off strong in the first, lag a bit in the second and first half of the third, then finish huge. That doesn't make fans very happy, but that's how they've played all year. They're still unsure of themselves when playing with a lead, the defense can be suspect at times, and their starting goaltender is 41 years old. Not that that's Dwayne Roloson's fault, but that's just how it is.

But, they have Steven Stamkos, who's one of the leading goal scorers in the NHL. They have St. Louis - who's in the discussion for the Hart Trophy - ended up second in overall points in the NHL, as well as second in the league in assists. There's Lecavalier, who's not afraid to take the team on his back and make things happen when they're down - and he has five goals in his last four games. Simon Gagne has extensive playoff experience from when he played with Philadelphia, and was in the Finals last year. Dwayne Roloson also played in the Finals in 2005 when he was with Edmonton. Ryan Malone was in the Finals in 2008 with Pittsburgh.

So there's plenty of talent, drive, playoff experience, and leadership to go around on this team - even with a first year coach in Guy Boucher. But even Boucher's experience, or lack thereof, works for him since he likes to think outside of the box. And it helps that he has a masters degree in sports psychology, too.

This Lightning team did overachieve a bit earlier in the season, and they've managed to work their way out of a slump - just in time for playoffs. They're hungry and they'll be dangerous, no matter who they face. If they make it past the first round, then they'll likely go deep. Knowing GM Steve Yzerman's phenomenal good luck, they may actually win the Cup this year.

It isn't very likely, but...stranger things have happened.

 

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