Thursday, May 12, 2016

Some Thoughts on Round Three

Buried somewhere in the archives of this website I’m pretty sure there is a prediction where I said the Tampa Bay Lightning would probably bow out in the second round of the playoffs, and that I was O.K. with that.  As with most of my predictions I was wrong.  Guess what, I‘m O.K. with that!.  After a horrible first game, the Lightning came roaring back and dispatched the New York Islanders in four straight games to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

Tampa Bay will look to defend their Eastern Conference title against NHL cover boy Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins.  The Penguins advanced by defeating their fellow Pennsylvanians Philadelphia Flyers (their fellow Atlantic Division rivals, the New York Rangers)in the first round and then handing the Washington Capitals their latest playoff disappointment in the second round.

This is the second time the two teams have met in the post season with the first being during the opening round of  the 2011 playoffs. That was a weird seven game series that featured the Lightning winning Game 5 8-2 and Game 7 1-0. Despite being just five seasons ago only  Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos remain on the team from that series.  Even odder, for the Penguins only Marc Andre Fluery and Chris Kunitz played against the Lightning in 2011.  Both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were injured.

Remember how I rambled on in my last preview about how I had no feeling for how the Islanders were as a team?  Well, that’s not a problem in this round.  The Penguins are offense. Plain and simple they like to score goals.  It helps when you have two of the best players in the league in Crosby and Malkin. Oh and it doesn’t hurt when you add 40-goal scorer and hot dog aficionado Phil Kessel in the off-season. Throw in guys like Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin and it’s easy to see why the Pens sport such a high flying offense.

A lot has been made that the Lightning have “only” played 10 games so far in the playoffs.  Well, the Penguins are right with them having advanced through two round while only playing 11 games.  And, sorry Lightning fans, they faced a little better competition in doing so.  I haven’t looked yet, but I’m assuming a lot of the national pundits are picking the Penguins to win the series.  After all, they were the ones that declared the Pens/Caps series the true Eastern Conference Finals.

So, if the Lightning are underdogs for the first time this postseason, and are finally the road team in a series, how can they win four of their next seven games and advance to the Finals?

1. Create a goaltender controversy

Penguins goaltender Matt Murray has been the surprise star of the playoffs so far. At one point this season he was the 3rd string goalie for Pittsburgh. Now, he’s leading them to a possible Stanley Cup. Since taking over for Jeff Zatkoff he’s gone 7-2 with a 2.05 GAA and .935 save percentage. Those stats mirror his regular season performance where in 13 games he went 9-2 with a 2.00 and .930.  Huh, maybe he’s just a good goalie.

This kid should have a paper route not a chance to go to the Stanley Cup Finals.

However, sitting on the bench is Stanley Cup winning Marc Andre Fleury. The longtime Penguins net minder is finally healthy and ready to play. Everyone, even coaches, loves experience in the playoffs.  Fleury has 98 games of playoff experience compared to Murray’s 9.  If the Lightning can light up Murray in one of the first two games, coach Mike Sullivan could have a difficult choice on his hands.  Hope the kid bounces back or go with a goaltender who has done it in the past, but has been sitting on his hands for the last month.

Having to deal with goaltending questions in the playoffs can be a big distraction (see Detroit series) and when every game matters, if the Lightning can steal one because the “wrong” goalie is playing could swing the tide in the series.

2. Keep the scoring mix going

Coach Cooper loves tinkering with his lines.  Whether it’s before the game or during the game, you know at some point he’s going to switch things up.  While his manipulations didn’t pay off in round one, it did lead to slightly more balanced scoring against the Islanders.  While Nikita Kucherov still seemingly scored at will, Val Filppula, Jason Garrison, media darling Victor Hedman, and Vlad Namestnikov all picked up their first goals of the post season.

If these guys start filling the net with pucks, the Lightning have a chance.

Having the defense start contributing offensively (especially the monster series by Hedman) against the Islanders was one of the best things  to come out of that series. Tampa Bay is at their best when the blue line is playing aggressive and finding ways to get their shots on net. Yes, it does lead to the occasional 2-on-1 break the other way, but that’s why you have a Vezina-finalist goalie in net.

The Lightning are not going to win these games 2-1 or 1-0, they need to score goals.  On paper, there should be more room on the ice for their offense. The Penguins have been giving up over 32 shots per game so far this post season.  That’s a lot of opportunities for the Lightning forwards (and blue liners) to cash in.  They have to focus on getting the puck on net and not trying to be too cute in passing the puck around.

It is likely that Coach Cooper will keep going with his beloved 11-forward/ 7 defensemen lineup, especially on the road.  That gives him a chance to mix-and-match a fourth line throughout the game that could keep the Penguins off balance.  It also lets him protect a couple of the younger defenders that are guarding the blueline.

He might move away from that set up if Steven Stamkos comes back at some point in the series.  In this type of matchup I would rather see another sniper added to the lineup even if it forces him to play Slater Koekkoek or Luke Witkowski more than he would like. And yes, I believe both of those guys have moved passed Nikita Nesterov on the current depth chart.

They need to keep getting contributions from all three of their main lines if they are going to match the firepower that the Penguins bring to the ice.  Heck, if anyone remembers the 2011 matchup, it wasn’t Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier scoring the goals, it was Sean Freaking Bergenheim. So look for the difference makers to be someone along the line of Filppula or Ryan Callahan.

I believe this is the one save MAF made against Bergenheim in the series.

3. Rely too much on Ben Bishop

Let’s face it.  The Penguins are going to get their chances.  They are too good on offense to be shut down.  Plus the Lightning always have those spastic moments where they completely forget how to clear the puck out of their own zone.  When that happens, they have to hope the big man in the net comes through.

Bishop had a great regular season and was basically the only reason they didn’t dig a hole so deep they couldn’t climb out of it.  What he’s done in the post season has been even more impressive.  Eight wins in ten games, two series-clinching shutouts, a .938 save percentage and a 1.89 GAA.  Those numbers aren’t too shabby.

There will be at least one game that he absolutely steals for the Lightning. Something along the lines of a 3-1 win where he stops 45 shots in regulation.  Those type of games can be series-turning, especially if they happen on the road.

Hard to score when the goalie knocks you on your ass.  Photo by Getty Images

They also need him to stop all the stoppable shots.  It seems like a simple concept, but it is extremely important when playing Pittsburgh.  The Penguins are going to score, they are going to score in ways that make you say, “WOW”.  If Bishop can limit them to those types of goals the Lightning have enough offense on their own to win the series. However, if he starts letting in some soft goals, I don’t know if the Lightning can keep up.

4. Special Teams

Don’t take penalties and score when you have the extra man.  This game is easy, isn’t it?  One thing the Penguins haven’t done well is kill penalties.  Their current success rate is 83%.  Not great, but not terrible.  They have, however, taken a lot of penalties.  They’ve been shorthanded 42 times in their 11 games.  If they keep that rate up, the Lightning have to find a way to score when on the power play.  Putting Brian Boyle in front of the net and Jonathan Drouin on the point seems to have worked.

On the other side, the Lightning themselves have been shorthanded 43 times in their 10 games.  Luckily, thanks to Bishop and the less-talented teams they’ve played, they’ve only given up 5 power play goals.  They can’t take 4 penalties a game against the Penguins or they will get lit up.

5. Hide Malkin’s Equipment

If there is one player I fear in this upcoming series it sure isn’t Ian Cole, it’s Evgeni Malkin. He’s been tearing up the Lightning his entire career. He has 19 goals and 23 assists in 31 regular season games against the Bolts (he has yet to face them in the playoffs) and of those 19 goals half are highlight-reel worthy.

Malkin has been O.K. during the playoffs so far.  After missing the end of the season with an injury he has played 10 games in the post season and  scored 3 goals while tallying 6 assists. He is nominally on their 3rd line with Chris Kunitz and Eric Fehr.  However, much like the Lightning, the 3rd line is more of another offensive line than a checking line.

Of course, the big question for the Lightning is going to be who do they match Hedman against? Will it be the Malkin line or the Crosby line? Tampa Bay has “held” Crosby to only 14 goals and 27 assists in 41 games over his career (again, he hasn’t faced them in the playoffs). So it’s kind of a coin flip.

If Anton Stralman does come back, most likely it would be in Coach Cooper’s best interest to match him up with Jason Garrison so that it gives him two above average pairings to send on the ice.  Hedman has played well with Braydon Coburn so far in the post season….of course he could play well with a traffic cone at this point…so perhaps you put that pairing on Malkin and Stralman’s pairing on Crosby.

If Stralman doesn’t come back….well….good luck with that.

Even if you can shut down Malkin and Crosby, you still have to worry about Phil Kessel who is the actual scoring leader on the team.  The Penguins offense is deeper than the Mariana Trench.

In the end I have a feeling that this is going to be a really good series.  You have two teams that would rather score goals than stop them.  Both teams have depth. With the exception of a few elbows, both teams play a pretty clean game.

The big question for the Penguins will be if Matt Murray can continue his outstanding play.

The big question for the Lightning will be if they can contain the Penguin’s scoring depth.

I say that home ice plays a big role and despite the return of Steven Stamkos in Game 5, the Penguins win the series in seven.

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