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Eastern Conference Finals Playoff Preview

 

LIGHTNING vs PENGUINS

 

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning play hockey the way Ricky Bobby loves to drive; with pure unadulterated speed. When these two teams meet for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals with the chance to advance to the Stanley Cup on the line, the East will come down to two clubs with some of the quickest and offensively minded Centers, Forwards, and defensemen in the league. If there is one piece of advice for the fans and players watching this series need to remember it is this: don’t blink or you and your team just might find yourselves down a few goals in a matter of moments.

 

The Penguins enter this Eastern Conference Final as the rightful favorites in their matchup against the Tampa Bay Lighting. Pittsburgh earned the spot as favorites after impressively dispatching the top seeded Washington Capitals in a series that saw lots of overtime drama and nastiness from both teams. No team remaining in the playoffs is as deep as the Penguins offensively with four lines that have legitimate 20 and 30 plus goal scorers littered throughout their pairings. Pittsburgh leads all playoff teams averaging over 3.36 goals scored a game so far through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Everyone knows of their future hall of fame weapons Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but Pittsburgh’s fantastic defensemen Kris Letang and Trevor Daley have really been the secret weapons who have fueled the juggernaut that is the Pittsburgh attack. Letang has played like an early Conn Smythe candidate, which provides the Penguins power play and even strength lines another dangerous scorer and passer that can pair with their already dangerous forwards. Additionally, the Penguins have gotten huge contributions from the Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino line, making opponents pay who try to take away Pittsburgh’s top line led by Sidney Crosby, with their top defensive pairings. The biggest question mark for the Pittsburgh Penguins will likely be the play of their young back-up goalie Matt Murray; who has been sensational since taking over for former starter Marc-Andre Fleury after a concussion took him down in the first round of the playoffs. Murray has played great, but particularly exceptional against the Washington Capitals, that coach Mike Sullivan choose to stay with his young goalie in the decisive Game 6 Penguins win; despite Fleury being cleared to return to play. Murray has not been fazed despite being thrust onto the big stage since taking over the starting goaltender duties. However, any time you have a young goalie in net as the stakes increase, the question remains what will happen if Murray struggles. Will the Penguins risk going down with their young backup or will he get a quick hook so that they can go back to Fleury should he struggle at any point in the series? The one thing that could derail the Penguins freight train offense is sudden instability in net.  If Murray can play Tampa’s goalie Ben Bishop to a push; that will likely be good enough for the Penguins to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

 

The defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning despite all the injuries and critics writing them off, have returned to defend their crown after defeating the New York Islanders in five games. Battered and broken but undeterred the Bolts continue win playoff games in every way imaginable. The Bolts written off by many to make a quick exit from this year’s playoffs after losing their Captain Steven Stamkos, second best defenseman Anton Stralman. The injuries would only continue to mount as Tampa would lose their spark-plug forward JT Brown and maligned but still a defensive starter Matt Carle for most of their 2nd round series against New York. Tampa would not be deterred however, as coach Jon Cooper saw the entire team take a ‘next man up’ philosophy, as they got significant contributions from every single line, while also coinciding with the coming out party for top defenseman Victor Hedman. Many Lightning fans have known for years that Victor Hedman is an immensely talented defenseman with underrated offensive skills, but against the Islanders Hedman showed why he was the second overall pick in the 2009 NHL entry draft. He was one of the main reasons Islanders’s scoring dynamo Jonathan Tavares was completely erased from the series after game 1, as he would not score another point all series. However, it wasn’t only Hedman’s defense that was on display but his offense too, as he scored 4 goals and chipped in 4 assists to fuel the Lightning past the Islanders. The potential return of Anton Stralman to the Lightning defense corps would be a huge boost for a team in need of help as they try to slow the elite scoring lines of Pittsburgh. However, with no definative timeline for Stralman’s return set, Tampa will likely need another heroic effort from Hedman on both ends of the ice if they are going to advance to the Stanley Cup finals once again. Tampa has also seen another player announce himself to a national audience as dynamic scorer Nikita Kucherov leads all postseason players with 9 goals scored proving he can provide the scoring punch lost by Steven Stamkos’s absence. The organization continues to cautiously hint about the potential return of their captain, no one knows if Stamkos will return in time and even if he does what if any kind of meaningful ice team he could play in this series. The uncertainty regarding the return of Stamkos, will force the Bolts to lean heavily on their one fundamental advantage they have over the Penguins: their Vezina trophy finalist goaltender Ben Bishop. The NHL playoffs history books contain goalies like Martin Broadeur, Jean-Sébastien Giguèr, and Jonathan Quick who carried teams on their backs to Stanley Cup finals, despite playing teams who may have been deeper or more offensively talented than their own. No one can deny Ben Bishop has enough talent to perform such a feat for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He has demonstrated this talent by having the best save percentages and goals against averages of any remaining goalies in the playoffs. Bishop will likely need at two if not three herculean like performances, possibly even a shut out or two, if the Lightning hopes to advance once again to the Stanley Cup Finals. The answer hasn’t changed for: how far will the Lightning be able to go this post-season, hasn’t changed now that the Eastern Conference Finals are about to begin. The answer has always been, the Bolts will go as far as Ben Bishop is able to carry them.

 

 

Series Prediction: Penguins in 6 after a brutal, closer than the experts think up and down series (overtime winner in Game 6)

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