Ten must see things as the Penguins hit the ice against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
By Brian Metzer
At this point we all know that I absolutely abhor doing actual previews for games, series… well, just about anything. First of all you have probably heard and or seen everything that I possibly could have told you in a preview in 50 other places already. We all know the stats, the figures, the players, the teams, so in lieu of doing a straight preview, I will be doing things my way.
Rather than inundate you with a number of facts, figures and “why we’ll wins,” I will bring you ten exciting things to look for in this series.
Yes, it does dovetail nicely with my “Five Things” wrap-ups following each game… thank you for asking!
We are roughly 11 hours away from kicking off the NHL playoffs and of course the Penguins/Lightning series will be leading the way here. As I mentioned last night, I will be teaming up with Lightning blogger extraordinaire, Jon Jordan from the great “Beasts of the SouthEast” blog for a series of pieces throughout!
Here are 10 things that you should, and, or could look for during the Penguins/Lightning series…
Who says that the series is lacking star power without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?? Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis are two of the most dangerous players in the National Hockey League and we get to watch them work their magic for at least four games… and hopefully many more. The duo combined for 190-points (76G-114A), 77 (21G-56A) of which came on the power play. Though we are all pulling for one side or other during this series, it is kind of hard not to appreciate what this dynamic duo has done over the past couple of seasons. As a hockey fan, I am anxious to see them in action… they will be key to the any Lightning victory in an individual game or the series.
2 – Marc Andre Fleury
Fleury has played just six full NHL seasons and has already played in 62 playoff games, winning 38 of them. Though he has had his share of ups and downs, he has seemingly played his best hockey late in the season and during the playoffs. He has a playoff goals against average of 2.52 and a save percentage of .911, both are lower than his career regular season averages. I am looking forward to seeing how the Flower responds to the offensive attack of the Lightning, as he will be a key to the Penguins advancing. Sure his defense is going to do their best to limit the ‘Ning’s chances, but he will have to make his fair share of saves if the Birds are to advance.
Beards are obviously at the forefront at this time of year. Not only are the players growing one, but many fans are sprouting some facial fur as well. It is always fun to keep an eye on the growth, especially the youngsters on each team, as their beards tend to be amongst the more horrible you have ever seen. It is also worth keeping an eye on several players on each team for wacky hair styles. Craig Adams of the Penguins has been sporting a Mohawk for the better part of a week and many Lightning players including Vincent Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Ryan Malone all recently shaved their heads as part of Tampa Bay’s Cut for a Cure. Should be an interesting hair/beard series – we can only hope that Sidney Crosby grows one whether he plays or not!
4 – Special Teams Battle
The special teams’ battle is one of the most important ones to keep an eye on during this series. In fact, I think that it may actually be the difference when it is all said and done. Tampa Bay finished the season clicking at a hearty 20.5% with the extra man, while the Penguins limped through the gates at 15.8%. Considering how bad the Birds PP looked down the stretch that percentage is kind. However, that is where it gets interesting as the Penguins boast the best penalty killing unit in the league, finishing the season at 86.1%. It will be a ton of fun to watch that unit go head-to-head with that Lightning power play. It should make for some of the most intriguing battles over the course of the series, especially if the Penguins allow themselves to get into penalty trouble.
5 – Alexei Kovalev
Kovy came back into the fold in Pittsburgh at the trade deadline to bolster the power play, add some scoring depth down the wing and to hopefully fill a Guerin-esque role in the playoffs. Though Kovy has shown some glimmers of his old self over his month and a half back in town, I don’t think that we have seen anything yet. He has long been a playoff performer, notching 98-points (44G-54A) in 116 career playoff games. If you consider just his last four playoff appearances he has scored almost a point-per-game notching .939 points per game. It is also worth noting that AK72 won a Stanley Cup during his rookie season – like Bill Guerin – and has never been back to the Finals. Kovy also never got a day with the Stanley Cup because of the lock out that occurred following the 93-94 season… that motivates him.
6 – Sidney Crosby Factor
Will he or won’t he? Will we see the Penguins’ captain during this series? Some speculate yes, but most speculate no. I am still holding out hope, especially as the 23-year-olds workout regime has continuously increased and he is now skating in full practices with his teammates, albeit without contact. There could be a daily Crosby watch going on, one that tracks each and every move that he makes. Though the Penguins have made it a mission to perform just as well without Crosby, knowing that he COULD return at some point during these playoffs motivates the entire team. It is a “cattle prod” that will drive them to leave it all out on the ice.
Dwayne Roloson once took the Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup Finals…no it wasn’t during the Oilers heyday, though his age might make you think that was the case. I am kidding of course, but I have been wondering if his age would end up being a factor during this particular playoff year, as he seemed to play worse when he was overused by the Lightning. He is more than capable of stealing games for his team…he did it against this Penguins team two Thursdays ago and he could do it again in this series. His skills aren’t in doubt at all, but I will be close attention to seeing how he responds playing every other day, especially if they stir in a long overtime or two. Jon Jordan, as you will see in his piece later today, feels that the team will be fine with Roloson or Mike Smith. Time will tell…
8 – Team Defense
Both the Penguins and Lightning made it a goal to improve team defense this season. The Penguins did so by bringing in Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek and watched as Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland both emerged as NHL defensemen. The Lightning have been building their blue-line for a couple of seasons and put the finishing touches on the blueline in the form of Eric Brewer. Both teams could have their hands full – the Penguins with shutting down Stamkos, St. Louis and company, the Lightning dealing with the tenacious forecheck of the Penguins and hardworking, grinding forward. The team who can better withstand the other’s onslaught will end up victorious.
9 – Three Difference Makers on Each Side
Pens – Zbynek Michalek – Z has been the backbone of the defense all season long. Brooks Orpik is the heart and soul of the unit, but it is Z who gives up the body to block shots and is out there doing any and everything to stop goals from being scored. Tyler Kennedy – Kennedy had a career year, besting his previous career high point total by 20. The fruit bat has scored some huge goals for the Birds and will have to do so during this series if they are to win it. Alex Kovalev – as I mentioned above, he is a motivated man. He wants a Stanley Cup … a motivated Kovalev is dangerous at any age. He has the ability to change a game, but will be choose to do it?
Lightning – Vincent Lecavalier – the captain has been champing at the bit to get back to the playoffs and he finally got his chance. He has played some inspired hockey down the stretch and it wouldn’t shock me to see him lead his team in scoring through this series. Teddy Purcell – the 25-year-old found a home in Tampa Bay and it showed on the stat sheet. He scored a career high 51-points (17G-34A) and will have to keep that up in this series, especially if the Birds find an answer for Stamkos/St. Louis. Ryan Malone – the Pittsburgh kid got a taste of an extended playoff run with the Penguins in 2008… then he watched them go on to win the Stanley Cup the next season without him. I still don’t think he was thrilled with out he ended up leaving town and sending his former mates home early might soothe the pain a bit.
10 – Jordan v Metzer
As I mentioned above, Jon Jordan and I have a ton planned for you over the course of this series. We will be kicking things off with our first set of five “Rebel v Rebel” questions. The Q’s I answered for JJ are now live at Kukla’s Korner and his will be live here very shortly. The banter will continue throughout. We hope that you folks will enjoy our meeting of the minds, as we have long hoped for an opportunity like this!
I know that the Birds will have their hands full with this Lightning team and it will not be an easy series, but I am going with the Penguins in Six Games… starting with a 4-2 victory this evening.
Jon Jordan’s Series Preview: JJ’s Preview and Predictions