Ben Bishop (above) has been here before. Penguins rookie goalie Matt Murray has not. But Murray has been outstanding in place of Marc-Andre Fleury (concussion) with a 2.05 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage in the playoffs. Fleury is healthy, so the Penguins have a Cup-winning backup should Murray falter. Bishop, a Vezina Trophy finalist for his play during the regular season, played like a Conn Smythe winner during the first two rounds, posting a 1.89 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage. He also recorded shutouts in the Lightning's two series-clinching victories.
The Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but they also have more than a handful of other goal scorers, including Phil Kessel (12 points) and Nick Bonino (10). The line of Carl Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel scored all the points in the series-clinching OT win against the Capitals in the second round. The Lightning is powered by Tyler Johnson (13 points) and Nikita Kucherov (nine goals). Jonathan Drouin has been the playmaker with eight assists. Brian Boyle (three goals) came up with big goals during the second-round Islanders series. The Penguins' scoring depth could be the difference in the series.
Victor Hedman (above left) has nine points in another stellar postseason. The Lightning's unit can get a boost if Anton Stralman (fractured left leg) returns in this series and reunites with Hedman. The Lightning's defense will have its hands full with the Penguins, who have by far the best offense it will face during the first three rounds. The Penguins' defense, led by Kris Letang and Trevor Daley, has been anything but the weak link many thought it would be before the playoffs began.
The Lightning is the best of the remaining playoff teams at killing penalties, which is a good thing because it entered Thursday the most penalized team in the playoffs. That doesn't bode well against the Penguins, whose 27.5 percent success rate on the power play is tied for second among the remaining teams. Kris Letang is the playmaker on Pittsburgh's power play, which produced 11 goals in the first two rounds.
The Lightning, though thrilled to reach the Eastern Conference final, is not satisfied with making the final four. Having lost in last year's Stanley Cup final, it is looking for eight more wins. That comes from Jon Cooper, who has the advantage of having experienced the hot glare of a deep postseason run. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan — in his second NHL head-coaching job and a former NHL assistant — has not. Pittsburgh promoted him from its AHL team before its 29th game of this season. Sullivan has a talented team, but this is the time of year when inexperience tends to show up.
The Penguins are finally living up to expectations and have the offensive depth that usually takes a team to the Stanley Cup final. The Lightning could get better during this series if Anton Stralman and forward J.T. Brown (upper body) return from injuries. Plus, Steven Stamkos (blood clot) might be closer to returning than the team wants anyone to believe. Maybe. The Lightning does know how to close games, outscoring opponents 13-4 in the third period. The Penguins have not lost a game this season, regular or post, when they have led after two periods (45-0-0).
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Roger Mooney, Times correspondent