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Penguins-Lightning: Picking a tight series

| Wednesday, April 13, 2011

So, here the Penguins are again in a Nos. 4-5 matchup to open the Stanley Cup playoffs. A fan could just about set his or her watch to it. This is the fourth time in five postseasons the Penguins have been in this situation and the third time in a row they are the No. 4 seed.

Looking for a reason to pick them over the No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning• Well, the No. 4 seed has won each of the three 4-5 matchups to involve the Penguins during the Sidney Crosby era.

Of course, picking the Penguins to win this series would feel like a safer bet if Crosby were involved. He isn't (for now, though that could change). As if playing without 2009 playoff MVP Evgeni Malkin wasn't enough of a challenge for the Penguins.

The NHL intends its playoffs to pair Nos. 4 and 5 seeds in a razor-thin matchup, and this contest between the Penguins and Lightning feels like one that could go either way. Tribune-Review Penguins beat reporter Rob Rossi looks at three reasons either team will win:

Penguins win

No. 1: Always back the best goalie

With all due respect to veteran Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson, the Penguins arrive at this postseason with a cornerstone player in his prime at the most important position. Marc-Andre Fleury, after his well-documented 1-6-0 start, posted Vezina Trophy-quality numbers. He went 35-14-5 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .925 save percentage over his final 56 appearances. Critics will point to his flameout in Round 2 against Montreal last season. Fair enough, but also keep in mind that the last time a considerable portion of the hockey world doubted his team — Games 6 and 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final — his response was to allow just a goal in each of Games 6 and 7. The Penguins won those games, 2-1. They'll probably have to win a few by that score against the Lightning, too.

No. 2: The four who can floor

During the final weeks of the regular season former Florida Panthers coach Peter DeBoer twice lauded a Penguins defense corps that had "four Olympians." Technically, Paul Martin didn't play for his United States at the 2010 Games because of injury, and Canada didn't include Kris Letang on its roster. However, if the point DeBoer was trying to make is that the Penguins are blessed with an enviable top four on the back end — well, he would have been right. Arguably, there is no better foursome than Letang, Martin, Zbynek Michalek and Brooks Orpik. Any from that group would rate as the Lightning's top defenseman, and Tampa Bay's fourth through sixth defensemen probably wouldn't crack the Penguins' lineup. Dominant defense corps win the Cup in the post-lockout NHL — just look at the past five champions.

No. 3: No emotional rescue needed

The Penguins finished with more points than all but three teams despite playing just two games with Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and center Jordan Staal in the lineup. Their revamped top line includes two wingers (James Neal, Alex Kovalev) who combined for two goals since joining the team before the trade deadline. The list of significant players to miss more than 15 games this season: Crosby (41), Staal (40), Malkin (39), Arron Asham (37), Orpik (19), Mark Letestu (18), Chris Kunitz (17) and Matt Cooke (15). In addition to a plethora of injuries, this team has survived the distractions of a new arena opening; a month of stalking by a cable TV crew; and being at the forefront of the concussion/headshot controversy that dominated the NHL's second half. Survival is all they know. They'll be fazed by nothing in this series, and that intangible leads to this result ...

Penguins in 7

Lightning win

No. 1: Play with that power

Pick a side, but consider the facts. The Lightning was one of six teams to click at 20 percent or better on the power play. The Penguins were first in penalty kill. The Lightning allowed a league-worst 16 shorthanded goals. The Penguins were second by scoring 13 shorthanded goals. Push, and maybe even a slight advantage for the Penguins, right• Probably not, because the Penguins are without Cooke (suspension), who is one of league's best penalty-killers — and they finished 21st in faceoffs after dropping off significantly since Crosby last played Jan. 5. The likelihood of the Lightning finding a way to score power-play goals will increase over a long series, as it did for Montreal against the Penguins in Round 2 last postseason. The Canadiens scored three of their four series power-play goals in Games 5-7. As for the Penguins' 25th-ranked power play perhaps getting hot, don't expect that against a Lightning penalty kill that rated eighth.

No. 2: Out through the trap door

There is no way to gauge how Lightning coach Guy Boucher's 1-3-1 trap, which keeps a defenseman back while attempting to clog the neutral zone, will pan out over a short series. However, the Penguins had a measure success against it this season, averaging 32 shots per game. There is a difference between shots and scoring chances, though — and the Penguins haven't always generated quality chances against trapping teams even when they've racked up high shot totals. Any trap is designed to force a team into mistakes that can lead to odd-man rushes. This 1-3-1 trap, though not traditional, is no different in its intent. The Penguins already are talking about playing patient — a potential compromise with their preference to play fast — to neutralize Tampa Bay's trap. That means the Lightning already have them thinking too much.

No. 3: The thunder-crack attack

So dangerous is this Lightning offensive attack — seventh best during the season at 2.94 goals per game — that center Steven Stamkos, who has 96 goals the past two seasons, probably is third on the list of forwards who will keep Penguins coach Dan Bylsma awake at night. Veterans Martin St. Louis (40 points in 41 games) and Vincent Lecavalier (41 points in 46 games) are reputable so-called "Penguins Killers." While St. Louis was a model of consistency this season with 99 points, Lecavalier finished with 17 goals and 31 points in 30 games. This dynamic duo is capable of winning a series by itself. Add Stamkos' lethal shot and two veteran wingers known well by the Penguins in former Flyer Simon Gagne and Upper St. Clair's Ryan Malone, and that firepower leads to this result ...

Lightning in 6

Additional Information:

The odds

Even without centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin guaranteed to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Penguins have the seventh-best odds to win it all this postseason at 11/1. Some notable odds for Round 1 between the Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning:

Penguins win (7 games): 5/1

Lightning win (6 games): 4/1

Total goals: over/under 30

Penguins points leader (Chris Kunitz): over/under 4

Lightning points leader (Martin St. Louis): over/under 6.5


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