St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones breaks down the matchup between the Lightning and Penguins.
Lightning: Most of the Lightning offense this season has come from Marty St. Louis, whose 99 points were second in the league, and Steven Stamkos, who was second in the league in goals (45) and fifth in points (91). But Stamkos struggled down the stretch with only five goals in the final 28 regular-season games. Fortunately for Tampa Bay, captain Vinny Lecavalier has looked like the Lecavalier of old with nine goals and eight assists in the final 14 games. He is third on the team with 54 points. The only other player to register 50 is Teddy Purcell (51), but the Lightning hopes Simon Gagne (17 goals in 63 games) and Ryan Malone (14 in 54) are finally 100 percent after being hampered by injuries. The Lightning also hopes to get continued contributions from Dominic Moore (18 goals), Sean Bergenheim (14) and Steve Downie (10 goals in 57 games).
Penguins: It's hard to decipher the Penguins' offense because it is missing its two biggest weapons. Sidney Crosby, quite possibly the best player in the world, has been out since early January with a concussion, and his status for this series remains up in the air. Evgeni Malkin, the 2009 playoff MVP, is out with a knee injury. Even though Crosby played in only 41 regular-season games, he still finished as the Penguins' leading scorer with 66 points (32 goals). Defenseman Kris Letang was second with 50. Though the Pens aren't top-heavy with scorers, they do have depth. Besides Crosby and Malkin (15 goals), six players who spent the whole season with the team have double digits in goals, including two 20-goal scorers: Chris Kunitz (23) and Tyler Kennedy (21). (Late-season acquisitions James Neal and Alex Kovalev have 22 and 16, respectively, most of them with their former teams, the Stars and Senators.) Then again, one of those double-digit goal scorers is forward Matt Cooke, who is suspended for this series. Key players to watch are center Jordan Staal, who had 30 points in 42 games after coming back from injury, and Kovalev, who had only two goals in 20 games with the Pens but has dazzling offensive skills.
Lightning: The Lightning's blue line is much improved over a year ago because of the additions of Eric Brewer and Pavel Kubina and the emergence of second-year player Victor Hedman, who finished the regular season plus-3. Brewer, obtained during the season in a trade from the Blues, has quickly established himself as the team's top defenseman and should draw the most difficult assignments. Veteran Mattias Ohlund might have lost a step, but he still is a physical presence in front of the net. The big question is how coach Guy Boucher is going to manage having nine defensemen when Randy Jones returns from a high ankle sprain. The only knock is that the Lightning's defense hasn't produced offensively apart from Brett Clarke (nine goals, 31 points). Marc-Andre Bergeron is probably the team's best offensive defenseman, but he might find himself in the press box because of holes in his defensive game.
Penguins: Without their two superstars, the Penguins turned stingy in the second half of the regular season and ended up allowing the seventh-fewest goals in the NHL. Since the start of March, the Penguins allowed two goals or fewer in 12 of 18 games. The defensive corps is young, with just two 30-year-olds (Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin), and it is not particularly big or physical. The biggest is veteran Orpik at 6 feet 2, 219 pounds. Look for him to match up against Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis. The defense, despite being young, does have experience and can generate offense. It is a "get-'r-done'' type of crew. It won't check anyone through the boards, but it plays responsibly.
Lightning: The Lightning brought in 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson specifically to get it into the playoffs. In 34 games after coming over from the Islanders, Roloson went 18-12-4 with a 2.56 goals-against average and an impressive .912 save percentage. Roloson does have playoff experience; he led an underdog Oilers team to the final in 2006. The Lightning picked up Roloson because its goaltending was shaky, yet backup Mike Smith has come on of late. He won five of his last seven regular-season starts and comes into the postseason with a three-game winning streak in which he has allowed four goals and shut out the defending-champion Blackhawks. But Smith has never appeared in a NHL postseason game.
Penguins: Marc-Andre Fleury was voted the Penguins' MVP this season, and there's talk about him getting league MVP votes. He started 62 games and compiled a 36-20-5 record, a 2.32 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. Fleury, 26, has tons of playoff experience. He has appeared in two Stanley Cup finals and won the Cup in 2009. He is 38-24 in the postseason and has appeared in 62 postseason games, 29 more than Dwayne Roloson.
Lightning: This series could come down to the Lightning's power play. Tampa Bay finished sixth in the league in the power play, converting at 20.5 percent. However, the Penguins had the league's top-rated penalty-killing unit at 86.1 percent. And take note: The Lightning has given up the most shorthanded goals in the league, a mind-boggling 16. Meantime, the Penguins were tied for second in the NHL with 13 shorthanded goals scored. The Lightning's penalty-killers were solid at 83.8 percent, eighth in the NHL.
Penguins: Historically, they have had one of the NHL's best power plays, but not this season. Missing stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for most of the year — as well as power-play quarterback Sergei Gonchar, who signed with Ottawa in the offseason — the power play dipped to 25th at 15.8 percent.
Lightning: Guy Boucher has had a stunning season as a rookie NHL coach. He sparked the team to a hot start, guided it through a rash of injuries and coaxed it out of a losing patch in March. Had it not been for that hiccup in March, Boucher might be the leading contender for coach of the year. However, that he pulled the Lightning out of its slump to win seven of its last eight in the regular season shows how steady his hand has been.
Penguins: Dan Bylsma has proven to be one of the NHL's elite coaches. He took over late in the 2008-09 season and led the Pens to the Stanley Cup. This season Bylsma has had to deal with injuries to his two biggest stars and a rash of injuries to other key players, and yet he still led the Penguins to 106 points. Only because of a tiebreaker did the team not win the Atlantic Division.
Lightning: Despite not having made the postseason in four years, the Lightning has playoff experience. Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Pavel Kubina played key roles in the Lightning's 2004 Stanley Cup run. The interesting player to watch, however, is third-year star Steven Stamkos, who is appearing in his first postseason. Sidenote: The Lightning and Penguins split their four-game regular-season series.
Penguins: Will Sidney Crosby, out since early January with a concussion, play? And even if he does, how effective can he be after missing more than three months? The Pens will miss suspended pest Matt Cooke, but this doesn't figure to be an overly physical series. The Penguins have far more playoff experience, with many of their players having been a part of their recent success.