It had been three long years since the Tampa Bay Lightning last made the Stanley Cup playoffs prior to recently clinching a berth in the post-season. Their reward? A date with the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the most physically brutal and defensively stingy teams in the NHL.
In anticipation of the series, we'll take a look at the two teams, their contrasting styles and how they match up head-to-head.
Penguins forwards vs. Lightning defense
The Penguins' entire rebuilding effort, and subsequent Stanley Cup triumph, was built around the theory that they could roll three top-notch centers and still succeed while only secondary resources were allocated to the wings. But with the top two of those three centers, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, on the shelf, the Penguins are suddenly very mediocre on the attack.
Tampa Bay strengthened its defense at the deadline with the acquisition of Eric Brewer from St. Louis. Pavel Kubina, who won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2003-04, brings solid two-way play and experience to the defense corps, while long-time Vancouver Canuck defenseman Mattias Ohlund has added a real measure of physicality to the blue line.
Still, the Lightning's defense is best described as adequate.
However, in the absences of Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins' on-and-off offense has frequently operated below the level of adequacy. Skill has remained lacking, despite the additions of Alex Kovalev and James Neal at the trade deadline. And as Jimmy Rixner pointed out last week, the Penguins have lost every single game in which they've trailed entering the third period this season, a sure symptom of a poorly-performing offense.
Lightning forwards vs. Penguins defense
The offseason investment in defense has paid off for the Penguins and the blue line unit, typically a weakness for the team, has become a strength. But in Tampa Bay they face one of the most dynamic offenses in the NHL.
Headlining for Tampa Bay are Steven Stamkos, who finished the season just five goals shy of a second consecutive 50-goal season, and Martin St. Louis, who registered 99 points, both good enough for second in the NHL in their respective categories.
The remainder of the Lightning offense features a balanced array of talent and physicality. Vincent Lecavalier has fallen from his once-lofty perch amongst the NHL's top offensive talent, but still managed to finish third on the Lightning in scoring while missing 18 games. Penguins fans should be familiar enough with Ryan Malone to know what he brings to the table, while Simon Gagne has had a late-season resurgence.
But the Penguins' balanced defense matches up, pound-for-pound, very well with the Lightning. Brooks Orpik is one of the top shut-down defensemen in the NHL because of his physical nature and underrated skating ability. In his pairing with Kris Letang, the Penguins can slow down any line in the league. Adding the pairing of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to the equation means that, defensively, the Penguins are a match for any opponent.
What was a weakness for the Lightning for much of the season has become a strength with the acquisition of Dwayne Roloson. The 40-year old, well-traveled net-minder solidified a very iffy situation between the pipes for the Lightning when he was acquired from the New York Islanders on January 1st.
But the Penguins' turnaround in net was much more significant. Where Marc-Andre Fleury was a major question in October and early-November, he has become an answer since and few goaltenders have played as well as he has since the start of 2011.
If injury were to befoul either either team, veteran Brent Johnson has provided capable cover for Fleury all season, while Mike Smith remains a serious question mark for Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay gave up 43 more goals than the Penguins this season. Much of that came before the arrival of Roloson, but this one isn't too hard to call.
If the Penguins are to win this series, Fleury will have to be their best player.
It would be very difficult to find two special teams units as diametrically opposed as the Penguins' power play and penalty kill have been this season. The Penguins' 86.8 percent penalty kill rate was good enough for tops in the NHL, while the power play finished at a woeful 25th.
It was also vitally important that the Penguins were able to kill as many penalties as they did. No team in the NHL took more minor penalties than the Penguins, and only one team, the cartoonishly goony Islanders, ended the season with more total penalty minutes.
In Tampa is one of the NHL's better power play units, finishing in seventh and converting on 20.5 percent of chances. The penalty kill operates very effectively as well, finishing the season in eighth. But the Bolts power play is especially impressive, and the prime reason for the Lightning's ability on the power play has been Stamkos.
Stamkos finished the season with 17 power play goals, good enough for second in the league. If the Penguins hope to win the series they will need to take fewer minor penalties, and pray that their power play improves from the null factor it currently is.
The well-studied Guy Boucher has accomplished much in his first year with the Lightning, guiding them to the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
But this category belongs to Dan Bylsma. A shoe-in for a Jack Adams Award nomination as the league's top coach, and probably the favorite to win it, Bylsma already has one Stanley Cup victory under his belt and has turned the Penguins into an aggressive, systematically disciplined unit that has his name stamped all over it.
Until Boucher proves otherwise, you have to tip your hat towards Bylsma.
The Lightning provide a very unfavorable matchup for the Penguins. Though the series is unlikely to be an easily-won affair for either side, too much leans favor of the Lightning.
Many teams who go through a serious retooling process lack playoff experience once they make their return to the postseason. But not Tampa Bay. The Lightning feature several players who have either danced with Lord Stanley or at least reached the finals, most of whom are key players on the team, like St. Louis, Lecavalier, Kubina and Malone.
Working in the Penguins' favor is a superior defense and the likelihood that Tampa Bay's St. Pete Times Forum could work as a veritable home away from home.
But, for the first time in a long time, the Penguins look out-gunned.
Prediction: Tampa Bay wins it in six.