Assistant coach Rick Tocchet appeared on my radio show, and he said the Penguins need to find a reason to hate Tampa Bay. The animosity was obvious in the series against Washington. Can the Penguins duplicate that against the Lightning?
Probably not. Hopefully, the lure of returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009 will be enough to motivate the Penguins.
The Lightning are not a heavy team. Like the Penguins, they rely on skill and speed.
Can Tampa Bay beat the Penguins at, basically, their own game?
Probably not. Penguins in six.
The Lightning made last year’s Stanley Cup Final. They reached this year’s Eastern Conference final despite being minus sniper Steven Stamkos and top-pair defenseman Anton Stralman. Stralman (broken leg) will probably return for Game 1, while Stamkos (blood clot issues) seems unlikely to play again this season.
The Lightning are legit. That’s even without Stamkos, one of his generation’s great finishers until he goes to Toronto as a free agent this summer and never scores again. Six-foot-six defenseman Victor Hedman looks like a latter-day Zdeno Chara. Six-foot-seven goalie Ben Bishop is a Vezina Trophy finalist. Winger Nikita Kucherov, one-third of the “Triplets” line, leads the playoffs in goals with nine.
But the Lightning have so far eliminated Detroit and the New York Islanders. If you could choose two Eastern Conference playoff teams to play, you’d pick those two. It’s like 2013, when the Penguins beat the Islanders and Ottawa – both very average – in the first two rounds, then weren’t ready for Boston’s onslaught in the conference final.
The Lightning won’t be ready for the Penguins’ onslaught. The Penguins’ depth will be the difference.
When Evgeni Malkin got hurt March 11 at Columbus when the Penguins were struggling to lock down a playoff spot, it looked like the ruination of the season. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened.
The Penguins went 14-2 without Malkin. More importantly, Nick Bonino took Malkin’s spot centering Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin. Bonino had previously done zilch. Since then, he has 26 points in 26 games.
Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel are performing better than any line in hockey. Witness a combined seven goals and 11 assists in the series against Washington, and they scored all four goals when the Penguins eliminated the Capitals in Game 6.
Yet, Lightning coach John Cooper won’t deploy his best checkers against the HBK line. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined for just four points against Washington, but they will get Cooper’s attention in the conference final.
Cooper can’t be faulted. It’s what any coach would do. The talents of Crosby and Malkin are overwhelming.
But that creates a big opportunity for hockey’s hottest line to stay hot. Hagelin, Bonino and Kessel won’t have a chance to introduce themselves to Hedman and Stralman until the post-series handshake line.
Malkin got hurt. Bonino jumped on that line, and it blossomed. Malkin returned, and made his new line a threat. Mike Sullivan got hired to coach, and knew exactly how to use the rookies, having coached many of them with the Penguins’ Wilkes-Barre/Scranton affiliate. Craig Adams is gone. Matt Cullen took his place. Upgrades from last year are plentiful. GM Jim Rutherford built on his team’s strengths, and the Penguins’ primary forte – speed – has mostly made their weaknesses inconsequential. Dominoes fell.
The Penguins are on a great run. It won’t end vs. Tampa Bay. The Lightning swept three games from the Penguins during the regular season. But their last meeting was Feb. 20, weeks before the Penguins morphed.
Bishop is the wild card. But with Bishop, I’m not sure where talent ends and being big begins. The Penguins have already beaten two better goalies, including a past Vezina winner and another current Vezina finalist. If the Penguins force Bishop to move, he’ll end up being just another victim.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-7 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).