Minus Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin the last few months of the season didn’t stop the Penguins from securing home ice for the first round. It speaks to the job Dan Bylsma and his coaching staff have done in working with their healthy assets. First-year Lightning coach Guy Bucher deserves credit as well for returning the Lightning to the playoffs for the first time in four years. Two cogs --- Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis --- are still around from the team’s 2004 Cup title team and Steven Stamkos continues to be a threat in his third season in the NHL. The home team won each of the team’s four meetings this season.
Here's the breakdown:
Forwards: James Neal (Dallas) and Alex Kovalev (Ottawa) were brought in before the deadline by Pens GM Ray Shero. Neal has only had one goal in his 20 games since the trade and Kovalev has two tallies since his return to Pittsburgh, but it hasn’t much mattered. It’s more about defensive responsibility and making the most of other team’s mistakes these days for the Pens. That could change, however, if Crosby (concussion) is cleared to play. Stamkos was surpassed by Anaheim’s Corey Perry for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy (most goals), but he still finished with 45, the most by any Eastern Conference player. One wildcard could be Lightning (and former Pens) forward Ryan Malone, out nearly two months with an abdominal injury. He returned March 31 and scored three goals over his last four games.
Edge: Tampa Bay.
Defense: The only playoff-bound team that allowed more goals per game in the regular season than the Lightning was the Detroit Red Wings. Tampa (2.85 goals per game) finished tied for 21st in goals-against average. Eric Brewer was the Lightning’s top player in plus-minus (plus-5) and a good portion of Tampa’s blueliners are in the minus category. The Lightning could get Randy Jones, out the final month of the season with a high ankle sprain, back for the series. With Brooks Orpik back from a broken finger, the Pens have a solid group of defenders to rely upon. Kris Letang, who played in all 82 games, had his best year offensively in the NHL (50 points) and was a plus-15. The team also didn’t stumble when it lost Alex Goligoski, who was traded to Dallas in the Neal deal.
Goalies: Marc-Andre Fluery is front and center when it comes to the Pens’ chances to advance. He had a slow start, losing six of his first seven decisions this season, but rebounded with a 14-game streak where he was unbeaten in regulation. Dwayne Roloson, at 41, is the Lightning’s best option net. It will be his first venture into the playoffs since he led the Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006. His best days of goaltending may behind him, but there's a chance he could steal one.
Special teams: Tampa Bay did a solid job drawing penalties, finishing second behind the Carolina Hurricanes in power-play opportunities. Team speed, led by Stamkos and St. Louis, will do that. The Lightning finished second in power-play goals (69) and were sixth overall in percentage (20.5 percent.) But they are going up against the league’s best penalty-killing team at 86.1 percent. That certainly could make up for the fact the Pens’ power play minus weapons Crosby and Malkin has fallen to 25th, the worst among playoff teams.
-- A.J. Perez