How the Lightning got here:
Victor Hedman went crazy. The 6-foot-6 tower scored four goals and four assists in a five-game dustup of the Islanders – this, after notching just one assist in five games against Detroit in the previous round. The craziest thing is that he did this while shutting down John Tavares, who was held without a point in all four losses, and finished the series-clinching game with a minus-2 rating and just one shot on goal.
In truth, without Tavares carrying the offense, the Islanders – even without Jaroslav Halak – didn't stand much of a chance against a much deeper and more experienced team. This Lightning team, if you need reminding for the umpteenth time, is going to their second straight Eastern Conference Finals, and without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman to boot. The more the Lightning win, the more justification Steve Yzerman has to not pay Stamkos the big bucks. It's not that Stamkos doesn't deserve what he's demanding, but more that this team is clearly capable of winning a lot of games with Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov spearheading the attack.
Jon Cooper's definitely right when he says Kucherov's a big-game player. Critics will look at Kucherov's sky-high, unsustainable 24.3 shooting percentage and figure he'll come back to earth in a thundering crash, but his career playoff shooting percentage is 20.6 percent, and take away his current performance and he's still got 11 goals on just 60 shots for a 18.3 percent efficiency. Kucherov's goal-scoring talent and production is still second to Stamkos', but Kucherov's been remarkably efficient when the going gets tough, which is something that can't be said for 99 percent of the players in this league, Stamkos included (career playoff vs. regular season shooting percentage is five percent lower). Just ask Alex Ovechkin how hard it is to score in the playoffs.
How the Penguins got here:
Dan Bylsma, meet Mike Sullivan.
John Tortorella's long-time assistant is knocking it out of the park in his second kick as a head coach after being promoted from the AHL, and Pittsburgh's newly invigorated, up-tempo offensive style feels eerily similar to the breath of fresh air Bylsma provided when he led the Penguins to a Cup win in 2009. There's something in the water in Wilkes-Barre, because they've been churning out NHL-caliber coaches over the past 10 years, including Bylsma, Michel Therrien, Todd Richards, John Hynes, and now, Sullivan.
The Penguins can afford to play this style and succeed because Matt Murray has been outstanding. Despite just 13 appearances in the NHL prior to the playoffs, the lanky goalie has been so outstanding that it kind of bewildered everyone when the Caps almost made him look human. Find me a good coach and I'll find you a good goalie, as they say. Or, is it the other way around?
The one thing about that 2009 Penguins team was depth down the middle. This was when Jordan Staal scored 22 goals and began his breakout as a perennial Selke nominee and ranked 29th in the league during the season in faceoffs taken with 1,206. It allowed the Penguins to use Evgeni Malkin, who is absolutely horrific in the circle and hasn't improved an iota since his rookie year, sparingly at center, and even less so during the playoffs with increased usage of Max Talbot. It's the same story again, with Nick Bonino emerging as the new Jordan Staal and Matt Cullen as the new Max Talbot. Not the same games, but very similar roles.
The pace at which the Pens play is also worth noting, in part thanks to the addition of really speedy wingers in Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust. They don't have the best hands (save Kessel), but they can do the dirty work and move the puck up the ice with speed, and once the puck is over the blue line, Sidney Crosby and Malkin can do their work. It really bears mentioning that the Penguins have already polished off two of the league's best goalies in Henrik Lundqvist and Braden Holtby, and now Ben Bishop awaits.
The best player in the series is:
This is a tough question with both teams playing so well, which means that the game-winning goal will be scored off a weird bounce by a player nobody expected. Like Tom Wilson, for example. But, I digress, because he's clearly not the best player. You can fight me on this one, but I think the biggest difference maker – therefore, the best player – in this series is and will be Victor Hedman.
The best forward in the series is:
Hedman claims 'best player' for the first time in these playoff ramblings, which means there's no escaping this question – Crosby or Kucherov? Crosby wasn't outstanding against Washington, and he didn't need to be, but he still averages more ice time than any other Pens forward and will be the focal point of any team's game plan. Kucherov is a winger whose scoring touch has reached absurd levels of efficiency and production, and the Lightning wouldn't be here without him. But Crosby has shown in the past that he fades in and out for stretches, while Kucherov has made scorched earth of the playoffs. Advantage: Kucherov.
The best goalie in the series is:
It doesn't get any more superhero than this. Matt Murray and Ben Bishop will duel to the death (figuratively), but it has to be conceded that Bishop has the advantage. Experience doesn't count for nothing, and while Murray has held his own, there were times where he wasn't as sharp as we've been accustomed to. Meanwhile, Bishop has shut down the Red Wings and Islanders in pretty emphatic fashion. Chalk up Game 1 against the Islanders to a long layoff. The Lightning recovered quickly, and the Islanders never came any closer to winning.
Top five storylines:
- No Holtby, no Lundqvist. Certainly no Price, and probably no Fleury. Which goalie reigns supreme in the East? The only time the Lightning ever looked vulnerable was Game 1 against the Islanders coming back from a long layoff, but it won't be the case here with Game 1 set for Friday. Murray's come through huge time and time again for the Pens, but surely it looked like his puck luck was going to run out against Washington, especially after T.J. Oshie snuck in an overtime winner and Justin Williams found his scoring touch late in the series. The subplot here, though, is if we'll ever see Fleury play in a Penguins uniform again. The series will be close, and barring a huge meltdown there's no incentive for Sullivan to turn to Fleury, who hasn't seen game action in a month.
- Assuming that a few of these games will go to overtime, you have to wonder how much Sullivan and Cooper can rely on their horses. Kris Letang is already averaging 29:26 per game in the playoffs, playing over 30 minutes in four of five games against the Caps. Hedman is at 27:30 per game, and has just played 30 minutes twice for the entire playoffs, but has also seen weaker competition. Between Hedman and Letang, who makes the bigger difference for their respective team's blue lines? Who can log more minutes without hurting the team? Hedman plays seven more minutes per game than second-place Braydon Coburn (20:11), while Letang has a six-minute edge over Trevor Daley (23:17).
- The Lightning went 3-for-19 (15.8 percent) on the power play against the Islanders after going 4-for-24 (16.7 percent) against the Red Wings, continuing an on-going problem with poor special teams on offense. The Lightning had the league's 28th-ranked power play, and given the Penguins' penchant for putting themselves in the penalty box – much like in Game 6 when they allowed the Caps to stretch the game into overtime – the Lightning have to strike. The Pens' special teams have been very, very good, and that alone could turn the tide.
- Who turned back the clock? Few players live up the billing, and Crosby is no different; since joining the league, Crosby has won just one Cup, and either due to injury or superior competition, has been unseated as the league's best player more than a few times. But he's certainly playing well now, and on the heels of a Hart Trophy nomination, the conversation is circling back to Crosby yet again, and this time, based on the way the team's been playing, some believe this is their best crew yet. Another Cup win will give Crosby two rings – the same number as Mario Lemieux. A Penguins win will also convince fans that there is still hope for the future, and give more reason to keep the same core after a lack of relative success the past few years prompted the firing of Ray Shero and Bylsma.
- Could Steven Stamkos be returning at some point during the conference final? That was the prognosis a few weeks ago, but he's still 'indefinite' for now, according to Cooper. He should be able to make a difference. But will he? Steph Curry is the rare exception, because most players don't come back from injuries, get up to speed and dominate right away, no matter the ailment. Stamkos' situation could've been very serious, and the team's been humming along nicely in his absence. Does he tilt the scales in the Lightning's favor? Special teams could play a big role in this series, and that's where Stamkos can make the biggest difference. He scored over 30 percent of the team's power-play goals during the season.
Head says Tampa, even though they've been untested, but gut says this darling Penguins team might just be unstoppable. I've flipped and flopped on this more than Sean Avery, but something inside me just refuses to think this Penguins team is for real. Lightning in 7.