Imagine Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos lining up against each other to battle in the NHL playoffs? While the Penguins refuse to rule out the superstar’s return to the lineup, it’s looking more and more like he won’t be back for at least the first round. It’s really too bad for Pittsburgh, who will be offensive underdogs this postseason for the first time in recent memory. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, had a shot at the Southeast Division title and even held the top spot in the conference at one point, but faltered a bit down the stretch. Of all the matchups this spring, this may be one of the most intriguing.
Offense: It’s a rarity that a team with names like Crosby and Malkin can be considered an offensive underdog, but with Malkin done for the season and Sid’s return unknown, Stamkos and the Bolts will have an edge on the Pens. Ray Shero did a hell of a job upgrading this offense at the trade deadline in Pittsburgh, but James Neal and Alexei Kovalev will have to be at the very top of their games to even come close to filling the voids left by Sid and Geno. Led by Stamkos and a rejuvenated Martin St. Louis, the Bolts scored more goals than any other team in the East except Philadelphia, and they were the only club with two 90-point scorers. Even good ol’ Vinny Lecavalier continues to find the back of the net, scoring 25 goals for the 7th time in the last 8 seasons.
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Defense: Where the Penguins have learned to excel in the absence of their superstar centers is on the defensive side of the puck, if only out of necessity. The Pens gave up just 199 goals in the regular season, while the Bolts allowed almost as many goals as they scored. A strong blueline that can contribute at both ends of the rink looks no worse for the loss of Sergei Gonchar, as Kris Letang had a Norris-caliber season, while newcomers Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek fit right in. The Bolts added Eric Brewer at the deadline to try and shore up their blueline, but they still don’t come close to what Pittsburgh has on the back end.
Goaltending: Marc-Andre Fleury has an excellent playoff resume, with two conference championships and a Cup win under his young belt already, but it’s not as if this is 41-year old Dwayne Roloson’s first rodeo, either. Rollie backstopped the Oilers to the Cup Finals before losing to the Hurricanes in 2006, and his presence between the pipes has been a stabilizing force since he was added midseason. Ultimately, both goalies will be tested, although Fleury probably has a bit more to worry about from the Bolts’ list of snipers. Still, “Flower” has been excellent in the closing months of the season, and finished with 36 wins and a 2.32 GAA.
Special Teams: A true matchup of strengths will be in effect every time a Penguin heads to the box this series. The Bolts’ powerplay, starring Steve Stamkos’ lethal one-timer, led the Eastern Conference with 69 powerplay goals and converted at a better-than 1-in-5 rate. However, the Penguins led the league in penalty killing, allowing less than 14% of their opponents’ powerplays to be converted. Good penalty killing is only as good as your goaltender, so this will have a lot to do with how Fleury is able to track the Bolts’ rapid puck movement, without cheating to cover for Stamkos’ wicked clapper. On the flip side, both teams were mediocre at best in the opposite facet of their special teams’ play.
This series will certainly be one of the most exciting to watch, and while it’s a shame Crosby probably won’t suit up, you won’t likely hear the Bolts complaining. My gut says that Pittsburgh will come out on top in a closely fought series, but I’m going to go with Stamkos and the Bolts, as long as Roloson holds up his end of the bargain.
Editor’s Pick: Tampa Bay in 7
Topics: Alexei Kovalev, Dwayne Roloson, Eric Brewer, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury, Martin St. Louis, Paul Martin, Pittsburgh Penguins, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vincent Lecavalier, Zbynek Michalek