— The Penguins enter Game 1 tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning as what appears to be a loose and confident group. The character of this Penguins team has been on display for months and that’s something many hockey experts can’t look past as Pittsburgh is a widely considered a favorite in hockey circles.
Even without Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby’s return for the series still unknown, many believe Pittsburgh is built to win this series due to the better goaltending and an excellent group of top-4 defensemen as Pittsburgh arguably has two No. 1 D-pairings to match up against the Lightning’s dynamic group of top-6 forwards.
To win in the playoffs, defense and goaltending are often the keys but getting those “timely” goals is what’s the main difference between advancing or not.
Pittsburgh has one glaring question mark surrounding them and that’s whether they can score enough to win a round.
As good as Pittsburgh’s goaltending and defense may play this series, the Penguins have to find a way to get that timely goal or two.
That is something Tampa Bay won’t have any issues with due to their immense talent upfront. A low scoring game suits Pittsburgh as the Penguins can’t trade chances with Tampa Bay but what makes the Lightning so dangerous is that they can be getting outplayed for several portions of the game and their quick strike ability ends up being the difference.
The power play will be one of those key areas that Pittsburgh has to get a timely goal. The addition of Zbynek Michalek at the left point has provided a spark for the unit.
An added dividend for Pittsburgh will be some scoring from their backend, ie…….Kris Letang.
— Over the past two days, the Penguins players appear to be downplaying the talk of the Lightning’s 1-3-1 being so difficult to exploit.
A key for Pittsburgh is establishing an effective forecheck and getting back pressure. The Lightning as a group defensively are vulnerable down low against physical teams and Pittsburgh’s is at their best when they’re effectively playing physical in the offensive zone.
Don’t be surprised if the Rupp – Adams – Asham line is a factor in this series.
— Two X-factors for the Penguins will be top line wingers James Neal and Alex Kovalev. Kovalev, 38, has 98 points in 116 playoff games and 54 points in 67 career games against the Lightning.
Does Kovalev have a little bit of magic left in him? He’s had a little extra jump in his step the past two days and I think he’s going to have a good series.
What the Penguins get out of James Neal is anyones guess. He has to find a way to finsh some plays. Getting opportunities is a good thing but 1 goal in 20 games is inexcusable.
The key for Neal is driving to the net more, which not surprisingly is how he scored his only goal as a Penguin.
— In breaking down this series, Pittsburgh has the advantage on defense and in goal, while Tampa Bay has the advantage on offense by a significant edge and special teams.
The Lightning boast a very good penalty kill unit that was among the league’s best and clearly a power play unit that is extremely dangerous in their ability to give a team so many different looks.
During the regular season, Pittsburgh though showed great spacing against the Lightning, killing off 19 of 21 penalties.
The Penguins were excellent with their rotation in taking Steven Stamkos away from his lethal one-timer shot from the left side.
Success in stopping the Lightning on the power play is going to be difficult in a seven game series and the key is going to be for Pittsburgh to stay away from taking inopportune penalties, something that has followed this team for much of the season.
A potential game changer the series; As good as the Lightning are on the power play, they give up a lot of chances the other way, allowing 16 short-handed goals. Pittsburgh by the way scored 13 shorthanded goals.
— An area to watch that could become an achilles heel for Pittsburgh: Their struggles in the face-off circle.
— The major wildcard in the series is Sidney Crosby. The Penguins remain coy on his status but there continues to be a growing sense that were going to see him at somepoint in this series.
The Lightning again insisted they expect him to play.
“Oh, he’ll play, ” Lightning head coach Guy Boucher said today.
My prediction on Crosby returning is Saturday, April 23, for Game 5 with the series tied 2-2.
Series Prediction: I really like the Lightning in this series due to the big advantage upfront and their ability in all facets on special teams.
However, there’s something about this Penguins team where it’s difficult to pick against them. I think the Penguins will get just enough scoring and home-ice is going to end up being crucial.
— Penguins in 6