The Eastern Conference Final of 2016 features the 2015 Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins have faced the Rangers and the Capitals to get here, while the Lightning saw the Red Wings and Islanders. Both teams have proved they are skilled and both goalies have at least one shutout. Now let’s look at how they stack up in a few key categories.
Regular season record
Okay, let’s start with the thing that will make the most people uneasy. In the regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins did not beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their record was 0-2-1 over three games played in January and February.
The one overtime loss saw them comeback, give up the lead and lose in over time. The two regular time losses included one where Fleury was pulled and another where Zatkoff wasn’t his sharpest. But as we have come to know over the years the second season is different.
Case in point: when the Penguins swept the season series to the Bruins in 2013 but lost to them in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final.
The Goalie Situation
It’s Matthew Murray’s net right now. It’s just that simple. For the Penguins, until something shows otherwise, that net is the rookie’s. That creates an interesting situation as the Bolts did not once play against Matt Murray this season. Fleury was pulled once and lost once in overtime. Zatkoff relieved Fleury once and lost once in regulation. The Lightning have tape and video on the Penguins net minder no doubt but it’s different to see the goalie in a game.
The deep Penguins beat the President’s trophy winning Capitals with their “third line” of Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel. The Lightning have a third line of Cedric Paquette-Brian Boyle-Ryan Callahan. People describe that third line as their checking and nastiness line. Truly, matching against Boyle isn’t easy for anyone just on height alone, but the speed of the HBK line, as they’ve come to be called, is what sets them apart and if they can break down the wing it’ll be interesting to see how the Lightning react.
Victor Hedman & Kris Letang
Neither Victor Hedman nor Kris Letang were named 2016 Norris Trophy finalists. But they both probably should have been.
The speed, skill, skating and tenacity of both players sets them apart. Matching them up against each other is going to be quite the head to head.
Scoring from the blueline is tough in a traffic filled game but tipped point shots were huge against Holtby and will be again against Ben Bishop who announcers love to refer to as “Big Ben Bishop” as if it’s his name. That’s where these two guys will get their names on the scoresheet.
The Crosby/Malkin Question
So far in these playoffs, the Pens have won without getting a dominant performance from either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. The scoring depth from all four lines has propelled the Penguins, but at some point you would think that either 87 or 71 need to carry the team for a game, or two, or perhaps a whole series if the Penguins want to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup. Will that performance occur against the Lightning, who Malkin has had great success against in the past?