The Pittsburgh Penguins have defeated the Washington Capitals and are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since Dan Bylsma got the pants coached off of him by Claude Julien in 2013. While that 2013 team featured one of the most star-studded NHL lineups since the salary cap was instituted (Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla!), the Penguins were dominated by a Boston Bruins team that would go on to lose to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals.
This Penguins team seems different, however. In a half season under head coach Mike Sullivan, the Penguins have turned from a listless, mediocre hockey club to arguably the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. They are fresh off of a six-game series win over a tough and talented Washington Capitals team that waltzed away with the President’s Trophy this season and are playing fast, determined hockey.
Up next, from the Atlantic Division, are the defending Eastern Conference Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. General manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Jon Cooper have put together a fast, determined squad in their own right. Even without contributions from injured stars Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, the Lightning breezed through the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders in the first two rounds of the playoffs, which, more than anything, is a credit to their goaltending, depth, and young talent.
The Injured Reserve
The Penguins have certainly had their fair share of injury concerns throughout the season. Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, and Marc Andre Fleury have all missed significant time due to injury – the latter two might still not be completely healthy. But Pittsburgh’s injury concerns have largely diminished while Tampa Bay’s remain problematic.
Two of Tampa Bay’s impact players, star center Stamkos and first-line defenseman Stralman, are both currently on the injured list, but may be able to make an impact on this series at some point.
Steven Stamkos is generally considered to be one of the best scorers in hockey. He has recorded at least 36 goals in five of his eight NHL seasons, the only exceptions being his rookie year in 2008-09, the lockout year in 2012-13, and an injury-shortened 2013-14 campaign where he managed to score 25 goals in just 37 games.
Stamkos had surgery at the beginning of April to address a blood clot. His presumed recovery time was 1-3 months, which means that a return during the Eastern Conference Finals would fall within that timetable. Stamkos is still on blood thinners, but has taken part in non-contact drills during practice. The 26-year old centerman will likely receive a gargantuan payday as he hits unrestricted free agency this upcoming offseason.
Anton Stralman formed the formidable “SweDefense” with the hulking young defenseman Victor Hedman this season. Stralman fractured his fibula at the end of the season and, barring a setback, will probably return at some point during the series against Pittsburgh. If it weren’t for Hedman’s superhuman performance this postseason, Stralman’s injury might have been a bigger deal. Still, his return could potentially be series-changing if he and Hedman are able to lock down Pittsburgh’s top line.
Nikita Kucherov: The 22-year-old Russian sniper appears to be the real deal. During last season’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals, Kucherov was dynamic (10G, 12A in 26 games played). This postseason, he’s arguably been better. Kucherov has already earned 12 points, including a league leading nine goals combined with an 11+/-, also best in the league. Without Stamkos, the offense goes through Kucherov, who owns a shot that is as pristinely accurate as it is lightning quick. Kucherov has colloquially earned the nickname “Klutcherov” by scoring six game-tying or game-winning goals already this postseason.
Victor Hedman: The aforementioned Hedman, has been playing out of his mind during the playoffs this season, much like he did during the playoffs last season. The 6’6”, 223-pound Swedish defenseman is a force in Tampa’s zone, frequently racking up 25-30 minutes per game. Not to mention that he is averaging nearly a point per game (4G, 5A in 10GP). Hedman is arguably Tampa Bay’s best player, even with Stamkos in the lineup, and will almost assuredly be shadowing Crosby for the majority of this series.
Ben Bishop: For the second straight round, the Penguins will be up against a goaltender in the running for the Vezina Trophy. The 6’7” Bishop had a bad game against the Islanders in Game One of the Conference Semifinals, but has played impeccably otherwise. The Lightning goaltender is active in the crease, capable handling the puck, and, with shutouts in two Game Sevens last season, has a proven ability to steal big games. Whoever is in goal for the Penguins, be it Fleury or Matt Murray, will have a tough time outplaying Bishop.
One thing that the Lightning have that the Capitals did not have is a third line full of capable defensive players. Even though Washington largely held Crosby and Malkin in check, the Pittsburgh’s incredible “HBK Line” (Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel) were able to exploit the Capitals’ lack of depth and super kick the competition.
Pittsburgh is going to have a much tougher time pushing around Tampa Bay’s grinding line. Cedric Paquette is essentially Matt Cooke, a hard-hitting, trash-talking pest. Former New York Rangers forward Ryan Callahan is a natural leader and will gladly sacrifice his own health for the good of the team. Big-bodied Brian Boyle is a shutdown forward who is good at faceoffs and standing in front of the opposing team’s net.
Aside from Crosby vs. Hedman, this might be the most intriguing matchup of the series. If the Penguins can’t get more production from Crosby and Malkin in this series, Hornqvist, Bonino, and Kessel might not be able to bail them out.
Who We’ll All Be Tired Of Hearing About
Assuming Stamkos doesn’t return, Jonathan Drouin’s story is Tampa’s most interesting. Drouin made the team at the beginning of the season, got injured, was sent down (or up, geographically) to AHL Syracuse for conditioning, publically demanded a trade, refused to play for Syracuse, was suspended, wasn’t traded, eventually returned to Syracuse, transformed himself into a defensive forward, was recalled to Tampa after Stamkos was injured, and proceeded to run roughshod for the Lightning in the playoffs.
Not exactly a heartwarming story. Drouin’s attitude matches the smarmy grin that he frequently flashes on the ice. But his unlikely reformation into a formidable defensive force means that he will probably see a lot of ice as Pittsburgh looks to flood Tampa with waves of offense. Drouin will be all over the place, is a puck-possession maven, and every Penguins fan will be tired of seeing him by the end of the series.
The Lines (With 2015-16 Playoffs Stats)
Nikita Kucherov (9G, 3A, +11), Tyler Johnson (4G, 9A, +12), Alex Killorn (3G, 6A, +10)
Ondrej Palat (2G, 2A, -1), Valterri Flippula (1G, 3A, +3), Jonathan Drouin (1G, 8A, -1)
Cedric Paquette (0G, 1A, -1), Brian Boyle (3G, 0A, 0), Ryan Callahan (1G, 2A, +1)
Vladislav Namestnikov (1G, 1A, 0), Mike Blunden (0G, 0A, -2), Eric Condra (0G, 0A, -1)
Victor Hedman (4G, 5A, +4), Anton Stralman (Injured, but likely to return)
Jason Garrison (1G, 4A, +2), Andrej Sustr (0G, 1A, +4)
Matt Carle (0G, 3A, 0), Braydon Coburn (0G, 2A, +1)
Ben Bishop (1.89 GAA, 0.938 SV%)