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If the Playoffs Started Today…


…the Lightning would not be favorable.  Currently sitting in the fifth seed, the Bolts would take on the fourth seed, the Pittsburgh Penguins.  On paper that’s not a favorable matchup, particularly if a healthy Sidney Crosby returns for the postseason.  With less than ten games remaining in the regular season, it seems this is going to be the series.

While Tampa is only three points behind Pittsburgh for fourth, that would still leave the same match-up.  It is looking like the only way to avoid that pairing is if the Lightning overcome the Capitals for the division title, but that is looking unlikely given the way each team is playing.  If Tampa can’t beat system, it will have to join it and find a way to exploit the Pens’ weaknesses.

The two have met three times already this season with one game remaining.  The Bolts won the first showdown in October 5-3, but the Pens won the last two, 5-1 in November and 8-1 in January.  The Penguins play a very patient game, capitalizing on their opponent’s mistakes.  They have been able to do so against the Lightning, but the Bolts are an improved team from the last time they faced off.  They have improved defensively.  Let’s break it down by category:

Offense: This is a tricky spot right off the bat.  It depends almost entirely on whether or not Crosby returns.  Without Sid, the Lightning take the advantage with guys like Stamkos, St. Louis, and Lecavalier.  It is hard to deny that Crosby is the linchpin of the Pens offense, and they really can’t compete with the Lightning there without him.  Assuming Crosby is back, it is a much more fair fight, but it is doubtful that he will return as hot as he was before he was injured. (Slight) Advantage: Lightning

Defense: While the Penguins don’t have the same defensive core they did when they made their Stanley Cup run in ’09, they are still solid on the blueline.  They have holes, much like the Lightning do, but their system lends itself to a team defense that it pretty successful.  They are 7th in the league in GAA with 2.44, while the Lighting are 25th at 2.96.  The Bolts defense is greatly improved, with a tweaked system and the acquisition of Eric Brewer. Still, the Lightning are the only East playoff team with a negative goal differential at -6. Advantage: Penguins

Special Teams: Despite the effectiveness of their offense, the Penguins suffer on the power play.  They are 23rd in the league at 15.9%.  The Lightning, on the other hand, feed off their power play quarterbacked by St. Louis and Stamkos, which is clicking at 20.7% for 6th in the league.  The Pens make up for their PP woes on the penalty kill, which is ranked 3rd in the league at 85.9%.  The Lightning aren’t too far behind, in 10th at 83.4%.  Tampa is more even in their special teams success.  Advantage: Lightning

Goaltending: Marc-Andre Fleury has not been quite up to form since the 2009 playoffs, and even then he was not exactly spectacular.  Dwayne Roloson has come out of nowhere to help anchor the Bolts, but he has let in his fair share of questionable goals as well.  We could look at backups, but should these two teams meet, we know these will be the players between the pipes. This is another aspect of the game in which these teams are evenly matched, and there is also no way to tell who is going to catch fire in the post-season. (Slight) Advantage: Penguins

Intangibles/Mentality: This is the big ‘X’ factor.  The Penguins have the experience.  They have been in the playoffs the last four seasons, been to two Finals and won a Cup.  They know how to get down when it matters.  They would also (theoretically) get a mental boost from getting Crosby back in the lineup.  Most of the Lightning have never been to the playoffs.  They don’t know what it’s about yet.  Their play finishing up the season makes it seem as though they have taken a step backward. However, they are also a young team with a lot of fire.  They will fight to the end because they don’t know any different, and that kind of team can be very dangerous. The Penguins also might find themselves burnt out, having to carry such a heavy load for so long without Crosby and Malkin.  Still, Advantage: Penguins

Looking at these main categories, it would appear the Penguins would win a best-of-seven series, and I agree.  However, most of this means very little once the puck drops.  You never know what’s going to happen when two teams are laying everything out on the ice, and that is where true character is shown.  They Pens have proven they can do that, but the Lightning haven’t had the opportunity.  They have young grinders who won’t accept that they are supposed to lose.  It will be very interesting to see how far “beginner’s luck” so-to-speak will take them.

Prediction: Penguins in 7.

Hope: Lightning in 5