It’s playoff time again, which means it’s also time for our Breaking It Down series. That’s where I – and I alone – take a look at the post-season matchups and provide a snapshot of the action to come. This edition features a look at the Eastern Conference Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Penguins and the Lightning aren’t what you would call familiar foes. They’ve met exactly once in the post-season and that was in 2011 when Tampa defeated Pittsburgh in seven games in the first round. The last time these two teams met was in February, which put the capper on three meetings during the regular season. Tampa won all three games, by the way.
But things are different in the playoffs. The Penguins are entering the Eastern Conference Final after knocking off the Washington Capitals in six games, while the Lightning dispatched the New York Islanders in five games. Tampa is the more rested of the two teams, plus they could get Steven Stamkos back in the lineup – not like they’ve needed him.
It might be hard to imagine, but Marc-Andre Fleury is currently the backup goalie in Pittsburgh. The Penguins have the veteran netminder healthy and ready to go, but they’ve been making use of 21-year-old Matt Murray instead. And so far, it’s paid off big time. Murray is 7-2 with a .935 save percentage and a 2.05 goals against average. If there’s a problem, it’s that he let in six goals on 55 shots in the last two games against Washington.
Tampa has no such questions in goal, as Ben Bishop is the guy. The 29-year-old is 8-2 with a 1.89 goals against average and a .938 save percentage. He has two shutouts, both of which came when it was time to close out a series. While Bishop was yanked in Game One against Long Island after allowing four goals, he’s proven an ability to bounce back.
Along with Stamkos, the Lightning are close to getting defenceman Anton Stralman back. He hasn’t played since March 25, but he participated in full practice on Wednesday and may be ready to go for Game One on Friday. He’ll join a strong defensive group, to say the least. Their containment of the likes of John Tavares was out of this world.
Pittsburgh’s defence is formidable, even without Kris Letang and Olli Maatta. Trevor Daley and Brian Dumoulin were particularly good, while Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole have the ability to take on quality matchups. The Letang and Dumoulin pairing is particularly good, with Letang coming up with eight points in 10 games so far.
Pittsburgh didn’t exactly receive a great deal of offence from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin against the Capitals, with the pair only coming up with a goal. Malkin was even shut out in the final four games, but team depth came through in a big way. The Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel was good for 18 points against Washington. Kessel is coming into his own, with a dozen points in 11 playoff games thus far.
Tampa’s offensive prowess has been well-publicized, with the line of Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov putting in some serious work. They’ve shuffled some lines around and the potential return of Stamkos could mean more fidgeting, but there’s so much depth on the Lightning that it hardly matters. And Jonathan Drouin is rolling, with nine points in 10 games.
Fans of good hockey should keep both eyes on this series, as it features two of the best and deepest teams in the National Hockey League. Both clubs have been rolling four lines and both clubs have been receiving quality goaltending, so this could be a game of inches.
While the Penguins may have some question marks in goal, they’ve got a hot hand in Murray right now and would do well to ride him out. Bishop has been lights-out and there is no indication that will change. He can and will weather the Penguins’ shooters, especially if the defence keeps up their strong play. This series will come down to mistakes and it could very well go the distance.
Based on the available evidence, I’m calling this one for Tampa in seven games.