A preview of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal between the No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins and No. 5 Tampa Bay Lightning:
Wednesday, April 13: Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. ET, CBC
Friday, April 15: Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. ET, CBC
Monday, April 18: Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay, 7:30 p.m. ET, Versus (JIP), CBC
Wednesday, April 20: Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m. ET, CBC
x-Saturday, April 23: Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh, TBD, Versus (JIP), CBC
x-Monday, April 25: Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay, TBD, CBC
x-Wednesday, April 27: Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh, TBD, CBC
Don't hold your breath waiting for Sidney Crosby to reappear. Out since Jan. 5 due to post-concussion syndrome, but still Pittsburgh's leading scorer with 66 points from 41 games, there's still more steps for Crosby to complete before he'll be cleared to play. It's known for certain that center Evgeni Malkin (MCL/ACL tears) won't play again this season. Minus those two, Pittsburgh's big scorers were Chris Kunitz (23 goals) and Tyler Kennedy (21).
Martin St. Louis is the only player to register both 95 points and 60 blocked shots this season. His 36 road assists were second to the 38 registered by Vancouver's Henrik Sedin. St. Louis rides a nine-game scoring streak (4-9-13) into the playoffs. Vincent Lecavalier finished the season with 17-13-30 numbers over his last 28 games. Steven Stamkos scored 45 goals, 24 of them on the road.
Edge: Tampa Bay
Norris Trophy contender Kris Letang slowed down some in the second half, but still produced career-high 8-42-50 totals. He led the team in shots (236) and plus-minus (plus-15). One of three defensemen to play 500 games as a Penguin, Brooks Orpik was welcome sight when he returned March 29 from a broken finger. Zbynek Michalek ended a 91-game goal drought and liked it so much, he scored five times in the last 16 games.
Acquired late in the season from St. Louis, Eric Brewer brought veteran experience and tallied a career-high nine goals. Mattias Ohlund, another grizzled vet, skated in his 900th NHL game and finished second on the team in hits (135) and blocked shots (136). Brett Clark led all Lightning defenders with 31 points and with 156 blocked shots. Two of Pavel Kubina's four goals were game winners.
Turning around a dismal start, Marc-Andre Fleury played himself into Vezina and perhaps even a Hart Trophy candidate. Posting a career-low 2.32 goals-against average, Fleury won an NHL-high 35 games from Nov. 12 to the end of the season, and was 18-11-4 after Crosby was lost to injury in January. He allowed two goals or less in 35 of his last 54 starts.
The Lightning solidified their wonky goaltending situation by acquiring Dwayne Roloson from the New York Islanders on Jan. 1. Roloson, who led the Edmonton Oilers into the 2006 Cup finals, became just the third NHL goalie 41 or older to post a shutout, and his four shutouts were the most by a 40-something puckstopper since Dominik Hasek posed five in 2007-08. He was the first Tampa Bay goalie to post a shutout in his debut.
Take away his two best players - two of the best players in the game - and all Dan Bylsma did was keep winning. He must be a strong candidate for the Jack Adams Trophy after leading his team to fourth in the East despite losing 349 man games to injury. Bylsma switched the Pens gameplan to a more defensive style after the loss of Crosby and Pittsburgh posted the second-best regular season in franchise history.
The next great coach in waiting for a couple of years now, Guy Boucher lived up to the billing when offered the NHL chance this season by Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. Tampa Bay equaled a franchise record by posting 46 wins in Boucher's rookie campaign, putting him in the mix for the Jack Adams Trophy. Boucher was named AHL coach of the year with Hamilton in 2009-10 and guided Drummondville into the 2009 Memorial Cup.
Pittsburgh (25th on power play; 1st on penalty kill)
How rough is it for the Pittsburgh power play without Crosby and Malkin? Michalek, who went into the month of March without a goal, was anchoring the left point on the first power-play unit. Minus Crosby's 10 power-play goals, Kunitz and Kennedy were next best with seven each. Pascal Dupuis (four), Matt Cooke (three), Maxime Talbot (two) and Craig Adams (two) all scored multiple shorthanded goals for the league's best PK unit, a Penguins first.
Tampa Bay (6th on power play, 8th on penalty kill)
Stamkos finished second in the NHL with 17 power-play goals. Lecavalier netted nine power-play goals in the last 28 games and was eighth in the league with 12. Clark scored a career-high six power-play goals, good for a tie for ninth among defensemen. St. Louis (41), Stamkos (36), Lecavalier (28) and Teddy Purcell (21) all topped 20 power-play points. The Lightning scored a league-low one shorthanded goal, Nate Thompson burying it.
Edge: Tampa Bay
Kennedy stepped up his game in the absence of others, scoring a career-high 21 goals. Max Talbot, scorer of Pittsburgh's Cup winner in 2009, always seems to come to the fore at this time of year. And make no mistake, the Pens will miss the suspended Cooke, whose irascible presence is a deterrent to the opposition. He was second on the team with 192 hits.
Dominic Moore, such a grinding presence for Montreal as the Canadiens rolled to the Eastern Conference final last spring, looks to be rounding into playoff form. Finishing with 18 goals, he posted 5-2-7 numbers in his last 10 games. Adam Hall dished out a team-leading 152 hits and won 55 per cent of his faceoffs. Thompson blocked 81 shots to lead all Lightning forwards.
Edge: Tampa Bay
Who would have thought at the start of the season that mercurial Alexei Kovalev would become part of Pittsburgh's mix - an important part, minus the skill of Crosby and Malkin? Kovalev isn't the Kovalev of old, but he's still capable of making magic happen with the puck and a motivated Kovalev would provide the Pens with much-needed mileage. But he only scored two goals in 20 games for Pittsburgh.
He used to be a Penguin, and an important one in their 2009 Stanley Cup win. Missing much of the second half of the season due to an upper-body injury, Ryan Malone returned to action March 31 and looked like he hadn't missed a beat, scoring three times in the last four games. A healthy, impactful Malone only makes Tampa Bay deeper up front.
Edge: Tampa Bay.
This could be the most entertaining, closely-contested first-round series, with some of the best storylines. Will the Lightning be happy just to be here? Can the Penguins make a run minus Sid and Geno?
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 7