This year’s playoffs is different for a lot of different reasons, one of which include a new seeding format. We’re not sticking to divisional or based on the top-eight teams in each Conference, we have 12 teams and a whole mess of possibilities for matchups for every team involved.
At the moment, the Tampa Bay Lightning are in a holding pattern, playing for seeding with the three other top teams in the East while the Qualifying Round goes on. And as of right now, there are one of eight teams that the Lightning could face once elimination games begin. At the site, we are going through all eight teams, and today’s microscope is on the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Why the Lightning want to see them in the first round
First off, redemption for the Eastern Conference Finals series in 2016. The Lightning are clearly the better team now, it would be lots of fun to beat them four years on.
The Penguins are also a similar team to the Lightning in terms of their strengths: offense. Unlike the Columbus Blue Jackets last year, the Lightning can go blow for blow against the Penguins at the thing they’re best at. And with a more well-rounded roster around them, they can cover all their bases.
This season, at 5v5, the Lightning created offense at 2.44 expected goals for per game, good for sixth in the league. The Penguins were down in 16th place with 2.27 expected goals for per game. On defense, the Lightning had the edge with only 2.02 expected goals against per game, third-best in the league. The Penguins were sixth with 2.09. Closer, but still in the Lightning’s favor. The Penguins are waning, so now is as good a time as ever to beat them and look like giant-killers in the process.
And also, it would be really cool to see the Joseph boys, Mathieu and Pierre-Olivier playing against each other in the Bubble Playoffs!
The Penguins Regular Season
The Penguins were the seventh best team in the NHL this year in terms of points percentage. They did this with a heavily injured roster that was without Sidney Crosby, Jason Zucker, Brian Dumoulin, and a whole host of depth players. The Penguins had to turn themselves into a good defensive team to compensate and got .927 save percentage goaltending from Tristan Jarry.
The biggest weapon for the Penguins, however, is still their power play. They have an incredible unit that’s able to dominate the front of the net, win puck battles, and score a ton. Similar to Toronto of the last few years, actually. The Penguins use point shots from Kris Letang and great net-front players like Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust to bury rebounds.
You would think Evgeni Malkin would be in front of the net, winning every battle possible, but he’s actually been a trigger man from the perimeter and a bit of a rover in that he shoots from everywhere on the power play. Finding ways to contain that kind of creativeness will be a challenge for the Lightning.
Bryan Rust led the Penguins in goals this year with 27 thanks to eight goals on the power play, he was followed closely on the goal ranking by Malkin with 25. Geno led the team in points with 74 in 55 games thanks to his 49 assists. Letang led the team in shots with 177, which tells you the Penguins relied heavily on shots from the middle of the point and collecting up on rebounds in front. Blocked shots and spiffy defense in front of the net is important here.
There will be lots of chances for odd-man breaks with all the broken plays at the top of the zone and from blocks. Letang attempted 340 shots this season, 105 of them were blocked or deflected (31%). For comparison, the Lightning’s leading shooter, Nikita Kucherov, took 386 shots and only saw 85 blocked (22%). Of the defensemen, Victor Hedman was the leading shooter and only 84 of his 306 shots were blocked this season (27%).
The Lightning were one of the toughest opponents the Penguins faced this season. In three games, the Lightning went 3-0-0 with full points on their record. They had 57% of the shot share in those games, which was essentially tied for the most lopsided the Penguins got beaten in a season series with the Florida Panthers. Chicago also hosed them, but it was only in one game. The Lightning also had 57% of the expected goals and 61% of the total goals at 5v5. The Penguins pulled these numbers back on special teams, which is all the more reason to keep the game at 5v5.
Here’s how each game went with links to our recaps below them:
Oct 23rd: 3-2
It was a comeback win for the Lightning in late October following a goalie duel between Jarry and Vasilevskiy. Hedman scored the winner late in the third. Thrilling.
Feb 6th: 4-2
This was probably the most complete win by the Lightning on the Penguins and it should be the blueprint for how the Lightning can beat the Penguins again, should it ever come up.
Feb 11th: 2-1 (OT)
Yanni Gourde kicked his scoring drought in the third game that saw Andrei Vasilevskiy stand on his head with Kucherov and Anthony Cirelli getting injured early (and Steven Stamkos, Ryan McDonagh, and Jan Rutta all out with injuries).
How things could go sideways
Things go sideways if the Lightning fail to contain Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Keeping them smothered offensively and chasing the puck as much as possible will be key. That’s obvious, of course.
Another important part in guaranteeing a Lightning series win would be to stay out of the penalty box. Even if it means the Lightning don’t get power play chances themselves, keeping the game to 5v5 is in the team’s best interest. The Penguins aren’t as good at 5v5 but they can win a series off special teams. Keep the tempo up and keep the game rolling.
Bold Prediction if these two teams match-up
This series can be a sweep if the Lightning really want it to be.