Series breakdown: Penguins (4) vs. Lightning (5)
Regular season series: Tied 2-2
Snapshot: The Penguins found a way to pile up points without their top -- first Jordan Staal then Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They did it through adherence to team systems and the stellar goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury. The Lightning's story is different in that veteran Dwayne Roloson came in halfway through the season to rescue the goaltending situation while stars such as Marty St. Louis and Steve Stamkos remained healthy throughout.
The Lightning adopted first-year coach Guy Boucher's philosophies to great effect. His 1-3-1 neutral zone alignment caused many teams problems, but the Bolts' propensity to pressure aggressively with two defensemen down low had more mixed results: Tampa Bay gave up the most even-strength goals of any playoff team. Special teams, though, are another matter, as only the Lightning, Canadiens and Canucks ranked in the NHL's top-10 in both power-play and penalty kill efficiency.
For all of Pittsburgh's discipline in following coach Dan Bylsma's plans, the Pens still took the most minor penalties of any team in the NHL. You see where I'm going with this: If the Lightning get on the power play to the degree they did all season, they will test the Pens' top-ranked penalty-kill. If the Penguins can stay out of the box and play at even strength and down low in Tampa's zone, they will prevail. Of course, if Sidney Crosby Is cleared for contact and can play in this series -- his first action since he was concussed by a hit from Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman on Jan. 5 -- that will add another dimension entirely.
Spotlight's On: Steven Stamkos. The prodigious scorer is making his first trip to the NHL playoffs, and everyone will be curious to see how one of the game's major young stars performs, especially since he got off to such a torrid start to his 45-goal season and cooled off dramatically, netting only eight in his last 33 games.
X-Factor for Lightning: Ryan Malone. He's back and healthy after missing 21 games. The former Penguin could be just the added big body and veteran presence down around the net in the offensive zone to put the Bolts over the top.
X-Factor for Penguins: Jordan Staal. Without Crosby or Malkin, it falls on Staal to play defense against the Lightning's top line and provide offense as well. If he has a dominating series on both fronts, the Penguins could advance.
The Pick: Lightning in six.
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