The 2016 Eastern Conference Finals are one grand challenge for the likes of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins alike. The best of seven series is a fresh slate of games between the two clubs, and that mentality is probably outright embraced by fans of both clubs. It's an interesting little factoid how the two teams fared to get this far as well as their direct results against each other in 2015-16.
Reflecting on the season that was, the Lightning went 3-4-0 collectively against the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders. To break it down a bit more, the Bolts were even (2-2) against Detroit while they were 1-2 against the Isles. This sub-.500 record was pretty soundly squashed in the playoff series against both clubs; Tampa Bay is 8-2 in the post-season, splitting both series 4 games to 1. That stat doesn't tell the tale of how close the games were in the two playoff series (5 one-goal games out of the 10 total games played in the postseason so far with 2 sudden-death overtimes) but it does tell you the result was much more positive than what the regular-season results had been. Worthy fact that wasn't tossed around much before the each respective series: Though the Lightning and Red Wings had an even season result, the Bolts outscored the Wings 12-7 in their four games. The Isles had outscored the Lightning by a single goal in their three games - 12-11.
Now it's Pittsburgh. The Penguins just took down the mammoth that was the 2015-16 Washington Capitals (Presidents' Trophy curse fodder goes here) in six games. They've gone 8-3 in the playoffs so far, having five one-goal games (all played in their series against the Caps) and going to overtime three times (going 2-1 in sudden death play). The Pens also took down both teams during regular season play, beating the Rangers 3-1-0 and the Capitals 3-2-0.
A team that lived up to its regular-season reputation against a pair of formidable opponents...and yet, Pittsburgh needs to live up to the second season's everything-changes reputation if things are going to be ideal for them to win the Eastern Conference Finals. If the Pens have the same regular-season results against the Lightning... Well, it's a guarantee for the Bolts to return to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Lightning swept Pittsburgh in three games during regular season, going 5-4 (overtime win), 6-3 and 4-2 in those contests on January 15, February 5 and February 20. All games were played after Mike Sullivan took over as head coach of the Pens, so the use of the changing-balance of coaching doesn't quite apply. At the same time, they were also not played in the last quarter of the season which was when the Penguins were playing their strongest hockey.
In the end, the second season status of the playoffs wipes away doubt and turns it into hope. For the Pens, it's the hope that they truly turn around struggles from 2015-16 by clinching a Stanley Cup berth. For the Lightning, the hope is to continue to show they're a force to be reckoned with and to repeat as Stanley Cup Finalists.