Two alpha dogs of the Eastern Conference will battle, starting tonight, for a chance to move onto hockey’s greatest spectacle.
The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins meet in the Eastern Conference Finals after both having up-and-down regular seasons. Tampa has had an easier road in the playoffs to this point, as they have won both of their series, against Detroit and the New York Islanders, in five games. Pittsburgh defeated the New York Rangers in five games, and then they outlasted the Presidents' Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals in six games.
The Penguins have been the hottest team in the NHL since mid-December, when they made a coaching change. The team appointed Mike Sullivan after they fired Mike Johnston.
Sullivan has lit a fire under the team, as they went from borderline playoff team to a squad no one wanted to face in the postseason. In the playoffs, their offense has finally lived up to preseason hype. Phil Kessel has led the team with 12 points, while Sidney Crosby and Nick Bonino both have 10.
Midseason acquisition Carl Hagelin has also come up big for Pittsburgh in the playoffs. He has totaled eight points during the postseason. Perhaps the most important player on this Pens roster is Kris Letang. Pittsburgh has outscored opponents 22-9 when Letang is on the ice.
In goal, Pittsburgh will turn to rookie Matt Murray, with regular starter Marc Andre-Fleury out with a concussion. Murray has enjoyed playoff success so far. He is 7-2 with a 2.05 GAA in this postseason.
Tampa wasn’t given much of a shot in these playoffs after their biggest offensive weapon, Steven Stamkos, went down in April with blood clots. Tampa, however, didn’t let that distract them.
Their top line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Alexander Killorn have scored 16 of the Lightning’s 30 goals in the playoffs. Kucherov has scored nine of those goals, and Tampa has outscored opponents 20-3 when he is on the ice.
Ben Bishop has gone 8-2 with a 1.89 GAA in the postseason. The netminder is a Vezina Trophy finalist for best goaltender.
Tampa has more playoff experience and they swept the season series. They also hope to get Stamkos and defenseman Anton Stralman back at some point in this series.
But what gives Pittsburgh the edge is their offense. Pittsburgh also has the home ice advantage. The Penguins will take this series in seven games.
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