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A challenge in-crease; Tampa Bay Lightning at Pittsburgh Penguins game 1 preview

While it's the guys up front who light the lamp who have had the key focus leading in to the ECF, it's the back-end and in the crease that will make the biggest difference.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The hoopla surrounding the Eastern Conference Finals latches on to scoring and speed.  The Big name stars (Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov) and their scoring touch get center stage... which seems like a cheap narrative. It's easy to jump on goal scoring as the end-all, be-all of the playoffs but that's dismissing a truth or sports: Defense wins championships. Game 1's hype machine may be ooh-la-la'ing over Kessel and Kucherov among others, but the tale starts with the likes of Ben Bishop and Matt Murray, followed up by the prowess of the blue lines from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Scoring is a marketing boon, but stopping scoring is a key to where both clubs are and where they want to go. Yeah, shots need to be taken and goals need to be scored in the end (because saves / blocked shots aren't a credited aspect that shows the victor at the final horn) but it's how many scoring attempts that are stopped and stymied in game play that will truly sway the outcome of the game.

So, the marketing boon may be Kessel and Co. vs. Kucherov, Johnson and the like, but the story that should be getting attention to lead into the Eastern Conference Finals is the guys in the crease and the aspects of Pittsburgh's Matt Murray and Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop.

Murray is all of 21 years old and started 9 of 11 games during the 2016 playoffs so far for Pittsburgh (Jeff Zatkoff is his backup and started 2 of the 11 games the Pens have played in the postseason). Murray's faced 291 shots on goal and allowed 19 goals over the 9 games he's played... Essentially his save percentage is .935 while his goals-against average is 2.05. He also has a shutout to his credit which makes the entire effort quite impressive.

Bishop is 8 years Murray's elder and is much more versed in the NHL waters by way of it... At the same time, the Bish-man has only played in 1 more game than Murray in the playoffs and given up one less goal than Murray in his 10 games. His official stat line of the playoffs is currently a 1.89 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage with 2 shutouts.

Perhaps the stats show you how this has the makings of a tight series, how defensive efforts need to be raised a notch for either netminders to truly shine (and I don't mean their own efforts but the guys in front of them playing a mite tougher)... It's also an aspect that can further the narrative about Tampa Bay playing lesser opponents than the Penguins have; Murray's stats have been wrought by way of facing the New York Rangers and the offensive powerhouse that was the 2015-16 Washington Capitals. "Powerhouse" being labeled on the Detroit Red Wings or New York Islanders clubs of this season just wouldn't happen. Another angle that should be taken into consideration is the fact Murray only played 13 games in the NHL this season, stepping in when Marc-Andre Fleury got hurt.

Fleury could come back at any time, or at least it's unclear about his process of return. On the other hand, that brings us to the Lightning's defense and its own will-he-return question: Anton Stralman. The veteran defenseman is on the verge of return to active play; he's been out since March 25 with a lower body injury. If Stralman does indeed return to the lineup tonight, it restores a very trust (though out of game shape) presence on the Tampa Bay blue line. With Stralman out late in the season (and in the playoffs) there have been notable changes and instability on defense, and while Stralman's return does not guarantee that lapses will abate immediately, his presence upticks overall confidence among the defensive corps (and among fans too).

Morning skate was optional for the Lightning at CONSOL Energy Center. Stralman, Steven Stamkos and J.T. Brown all participated with a few others. Stamkos was in a regular jersey, but don't read into that as an imminent return from his blood-clot recovery. Things should be made clear on the lineup about an hour-and-a-half before game time. It's Stralman's return (and potentially J.T. Brown) that may be unfurled in the media.

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