Pittsburgh Penguins (2nd seed, Metropolitan Division) versus Tampa Bay Lightning (2nd seed, Atlantic Division)
Better buckle up for what should be a track meet of a series between two of the speediest, most skilled teams around. The Lightning will come in slightly more rested, having dumped both the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Islanders each in five games. The Penguins are coming off an emotional roller coaster of a series with the archrival Washington Capitals that went six games and featured three overtime games and plenty of nastiness before the Penguins prevailed.
How they win
Pittsburgh: Basically, if the Penguins keep doing what they're doing -- which is use their speed and skill to force opponents into backing off, thus allowing easy penetration of the offensive zone -- I'm not sure there's a team that can beat them over seven games. Pittsburgh, the top offensive team in the playoffs, is averaging 3.36 goals per game and rolling out four lines with legitimate scoring punch. A defense that was considered a flaw in the team's design has been, for the most part, excellent behind Kris Letang and Trevor Daley. In fact, Letang is having a Conn Smythe-worthy postseason. Olli Maatta returned to the lineup in Game 6 after missing three games thanks to a nasty hit from Brooks Orpik. In all, 15 Penguins have scored this spring, which is pretty incredible. The line of Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino, all new to the Pens within the last year, was dynamite in the Capitals series and single-handedly delivered the Game 6 overtime series clincher.
Tampa Bay: Well, Ben Bishop is a Vezina Trophy nominee and has been, with the exception of Game 1 against the Islanders, peerless. In five possible clinching scenarios in the past two playoff springs, Bishop has allowed one goal and collected four shutouts. Victor Hedman is fully back to beast mode and appears to have returned to the dominant form that was integral to the Lightning's march to the Stanley Cup finals last June. Tampa Bay still won't have the injured Steven Stamkos up front, but Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov have combined for 25 points. Kucherov's nine goals is tops in the NHL, but the Lightning feature a balanced attack with 11 goal scorers, including Jonathan Drouin, who has nine points in 10 games. Brian Boyle has been a key component too, with Lightning coach Jon Cooper using him on the power play to create havoc in front. Tampa Bay has outscored opponents 13-4 in the third period and 2-0 in overtime. The Lightning will need scoring from all sectors to keep pace with the Pens.
How they lose
Pittsburgh: The Pens nearly blew Game 6 because of an inexplicable rash of penalties, including three straight delay-of-game calls. Although Pittsburgh was the superior team at even strength against a good Capitals team, they did allow Washington to gain momentum from the power play, as the Capitals scored five times with the man advantage, including two in Game 6. Letang is crucial to the Pens' success, but he must channel his energy in a positive fashion. He was suspended for a game against Washington and avoided being penalized in the first round for whacking Viktor Stalberg in the face with his stick. He also took a late minor against Washington in Game 6 that could have cost the Penguins the game and possibly the series. So discipline, especially from key personnel, will be critical against a talented Lightning team.
Tampa Bay: The Lightning survived against two mediocre teams without two of their key players, Stamkos and defenseman Anton Stralman. They might get Stralman -- who participated on Wednesday in his first full practice since breaking his left fibula on March 25 -- back for this series, but Stamkos' status remains unclear. Their continued absence against a team as loaded as Pittsburgh could prove fatal for Tampa Bay. Although Pittsburgh's power play slumbered in the middle of the series against Washington, it still ranks third among all playoff teams with a rate of 27.5 percent. The Lightning will need to do better with the man advantage -- seven goals on 42 attempts, far less effective than the Penguins' power play. Tampa Bay's penalty kill has been excellent, allowing just five goals. If that falters, the Lightning will have problems if they don't cut down on minor penalties; they have 59 minors, the most among playoff teams.
That's the playoff save percentage turned in by 21-year-old Matt Murray, the cool-as-a-cucumber rookie netminder. Sure, folks might be wondering when he'll wobble, but the fact is Murray outplayed Vezina Trophy favorite Braden Holtby over six games, just as he outplayed former Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist after taking over in Game 3 of Pittsburgh's first-round series against the New York Rangers. Now he'll go up against Bishop, another Vezina-worthy goalie who sports a .938 save percentage and two shutouts. A mismatch? Maybe. But maybe not.
Pittsburgh: It's always news when Sidney Crosby doesn't light it up. And sure, the fact that he had zero goals against the Capitals might have arched an eyebrow or two, but the Penguins captain and Hart Trophy finalist does so much all over the ice, an outpouring of goals seems inevitable at some point. Why not now?
Tampa Bay: If he comes back, Stralman -- a right-handed shot -- could be the difference-maker for the Lightning. But whether he will play remains unknown. What is known is just how good Hedman has been this spring, and he has the potential to take over this series.
This should be a ton of fun, but I just don't see how the Lightning can match the Penguins' depth even if they can somewhat match their speed. Bishop might give the Lightning an edge in goal, but it won't be significant enough to derail a Penguins team on a mission. Pittsburgh in 6.