The Penguins enter their first round series with the Tampa Bay Lightning as the inferior team offensively and advancing to the second round of the playoffs will in all likelyhood be dictated on their goaltending and defensive play.
The Penguins this past off-season decided to build their team around defense after failing to replace the likes of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill in 2009, followed by a second round ouster to the Montreal Canadiens in 2010.
The Penguins committed $45 million combined to Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek, which helped transform the team’s top-4 and improve from 20th in goals against to 6th in goals against this season.
Statistically, there’s no argument that the Penguins are better defensively this season and many factors have attributed to that, but whether their group of top-6 defenseman is as strong as the stats indicate will be answered against the Lightning’s elite group of forwards.
Compared to last season, the Penguins group of top-4 defensemen is much stronger this season but their No. 3 pairing of Ben Lovejoy/Matt Niskanen-Deryk Engelland is not close to the pairing of Alex Goligoski-Jordan Leopold/ Jay McKee the Penguins deployed last spring.
From a defensive standpoint, the Penguins had more quality depth last year but a better top-4 this season.
The Penguins top-4 of Brooks Orpik – Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek will have to be dominant in this series and based off managements willigness to put a significant amount of money into their top-4 and feel comfortable enough to weaken their top-6 with the trade of Alex Goligoski, the pressure in this series should be on the likes of Orpik, Letang, Martin and Michalek.
The top-4 is going to have to off-set a very questionable third pairing.
The Lightning offensively pose the Penguins matchup problems on the blueline due to their ability to crash the net and work for rebounds and tips. That’s an area Lightning head coach Guy Boucher will surely look for his team to exploit the Penguins likely opening game third pairing of Ben Lovejoy and Matt Niskanen.
Neither player is known to have a strong ability to clear the front of the net and Niskanen is very vulnerable down low against teams establishing a cycle.
Although the Lightning’s speed factor could point to Niskanen and Lovejoy being the best fits, however, with the way the Lightning crash the net, Deryk Engelland is the better option over Niskanen.