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Penguins vs. Lightning 2016 Eastern Conference Finals preview

The Lightning are rested, but Sidney Crosby's Penguins pose their toughest challenge yet on the road to the Stanley Cup Final.

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Regular season recap

Jan. 15:Lightning 5, Penguins 4 (OT)

Feb. 5: Lightning 6, Penguins 3

Feb. 20:Lightning 4, Penguins 2

Notable injuries

Penguins: F Beau Bennett (undisclosed, day-to-day); F Scott Wilson (lower body, IR); Kevin Porter (ankle, IR)

Lightning: D Anton Stralman (lower body, day-to-day); F Steven Stamkos (blood clots, IR); J.T. Brown (upper body, IR); Erik Condra (upper body, day-to-day)

Keys to a Penguins victory

Offense: No secret to what the Pens want to do in this series. They'll skate fast, shoot often and roll four lines that are capable of inflicting damage. That depth has been the key to their success so far. The Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals were able to slow down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (combined four points in the second round), but they had no answer for the Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel-Carl Hagelin unit. That trio combined for 18 points in the series and accounted for all four goals in Pittsburgh's Game 6 overtime series clincher. Their effectiveness will be more pronounced though if the big guns start firing. Crosby was effective on the forecheck against the Caps and had his chances. Sooner or later, the NHL's third leading scorer during the regular season will rediscover his touch. Malkin was more of a fits-and-spurts threat, but he looked better as the series wore on and could just be rounding into form.

Keep an eye on veteran Matt Cullen as an X factor: "Matt's been a key part of this team's success in a lot of different aspects, whether it be on the penalty kill, taking
defensive zone face-offs, or coming up with a big goal for us at a key time to help us win," said coach Mike Sullivan. The 39-year-old doesn't get big minutes, but he's created some big moment nonetheless. His speed can catch a defense off-guard.

The key to Sidney Crosby's resurgence

Defense: Pittsburgh's blueline corps was surprisingly effective against the Caps, especially with Olli Maatta and Kris Letang missing time to injury and suspension, respectively. This is a light infantry unit built for speed rather than a heavy siege, so they'll look to control possession, make quick outs and join the attack. They have the speed to match up with Tampa's lightning-quick forwards, but they can handle the man-on-man work as well. Letang and Trevor Daley will get most of the attention, but watch for Brian Dumoulin. He was key in slowing down Alex Ovechkin while skating alongside Letang, and could play a pivotal role if Stamkos returns to the lineup.

Goaltending: Matt Murray is no longer the goalie of the future for the Pens. He's ready for the spotlight now. The 21-year-old has been as cool as the proverbial other side of the pillow through the first two rounds, getting the best of Olympic gold medalist Henrik Lundqvist in the first round and Vezina Trophy favorite Braden Holtby in the second. He's had the occasional hiccup along the way (allowing three goals on 19 shots in Game 6 against the Caps comes to mind) but is so even-keeled that he quickly returns to his center. That should serve him well against a Lightning team that boasts quick-strike potential. They might beat him, but he won't beat himself.

Keys to a Lightning victory

Offense:While they can't match Pittsburgh's depth, the Lightning do boast a balanced attack. Eleven players have chipped in goals through the first two rounds, lead by Nikita Kucherov with a playoff-high nine. He and linemate Tyler Johnson, who combined for 25 points through the first two rounds, have to stay hot. So does Jonathan Drouin, whose speed and finesse has helped overcome the absence of sniper Steven Stamkos (blood clot). Drouin has produced nine points in 10 postseason games this spring and shown the ability to take over a shift at any moment. He might have to take over a game to give the Bolts an edge in this series. Brian Boyle has been a useful weapon, especially on the power play. Pittsburgh doesn't have that big horse defenseman, so he may create an advantage with his size and strength down low.

The return of 36-goal man Stamkos could swing the series Tampa's way, but his availability is up in the air. Although he's taking part in practice, he's yet to be cleared by doctors or taken off the blood thinners that would make game action potentially life threatening. “There’s a chance,” Stamkos said. “That’s why I’m putting in this hard work. If there wasn’t a chance then I’d just have my pom poms out and be a cheerleader. I’ve done that for sure, but there’s a reason why I’m working as hard as I am every day."

Victor Hedman quietly grows into cornerstone of Lightning's defense

Defense: It'll help Tampa Bay's cause tremendously if Anton Stralman returns, as expected, from his broken leg. The presence of the minute-munching defender changes the complexion of their blueline. He'll afford coach Jon Cooper a variety of match-up options, and he could add some spark to the offense. Stralman scored just nine goals all season but he counted four of them against the Pens, getting at least one in each of their three meetings. Victor Hedman is an early favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He led the Bolts with a 4-4-8 line against the Islanders in the second round, and completely shut down John Tavares in the process. Crosby's a next-level challenge. That match-up could swing the series.​

Goaltending: Defense and netminding are always key at this time of year (just ask Dallas and Nashville), but they might be Tampa Bay's only chance to squeeze by the Pens. Ben Bishop has lived up to his status as a Vezina finalist so far in these playoffs, posting a 2.06 GAA and limiting opponents to two goals or fewer in eight of 10 appearances. Against a Pens team that's leading the league in scoring (3.36 goals per game), he won't have much room for error. The Bolts have taken a league-leading 59 minors through the first 10 games of the tournament, so discipline is an area they'll have to key in on. They've been solid on the penalty kill, posting an 88.4% success rate—the highest of any of the four conference finalists—but they allowed a power-play goal-against in four of five games against the Islanders. The Pens never quite got their power play on track against the Caps, but did manage two goals in 33 seconds on a Brooks Orpik double minor in the clincher. That's not a bear the Bolts want to poke too often.

The Pick

The Lightning have had an easy time of it through the first two rounds, but they're up against a bigger, badder beast here. Even if they get both Stralman and Stamkos back, I'm not sure they've got an answer for Pittsburgh's depth up front. And the Pens, who have home ice advantage, have been ruthless at Consol Energy Center, where they've taken 21 of of their last 26 games. They look like the more Cup-worthy team here. Pittsburgh in six.