by Jon Jordan on 04/12/11 at 03:14 PM ET
Every year around this time, in writing this very piece, I usually begin with something along the lines of, “I swore I’d never make playoff predictions again.” For starters, everybody does it and I usually try my best to steer clear of being just like the rest of ‘em. But more than that, my repeated attempts to avoid postseason prognostication stem from my overwhelming lack of accuracy in years past. (The postseason underachievers of the world have drawn my ire time and again. San Jose, you still top my poop list for that reason.)
But worse than my failure to pick a set of winners that resembles anything close to accuracy is my perennial failure to avoid picking altogether.
Something always draws me in.
And now, I realize, I’m powerless to fight it. I’ll make my picks here today, do so again round after round and I’ll do it again next year (and the year after that, and so on and so forth). Might as well be honest with myself…
This year, the allure is in the series that will remain my primary focus, Tampa Bay vs. Pittsburgh. I have to admit, it’s still a bit surreal to see the hometown Bolts actually in the Stanley Cup playoffs. After the last two seasons of uncertainty, four seasons overall since their last playoff game and even despite the regular season success they managed early and often this year, the fact that exit medicals and getaway interviews haven’t already been conducted is still a bit of a walk through bizzarro-world for me. Better get over that, I suppose… The Lightning certainly aren’t thinking that way.
This team expected more out of itself from training camp on this season and with early success, those expectations were elevated consistently. Now, with a spot in the dance, so to speak, you can bet that bar has been raised yet again, with advancement (and beyond) the number one priority of everyone in the Lightning room.
Standing in the way, of course, is no pushover opponent. The Pittsburgh Penguins fought through the losses of their two greatest stars to injury and several other hobbled key contributors throughout the season to post 106 points, only losing out on an Atlantic Division title to Philadelphia, thanks to the silly regulation/overtime win tiebreaker (score another one for the anti-shootout movement, thank you very much).
The biggest question surrounding this series is just how much, if at all, Sidney Crosby will be involved for Pittsburgh. He’s a game-changing player, no doubt, and his return to the Penguins’ lineup for the first time since a January concussion could very well be a series-changing addition. The relatively official word on Crosby is that his status is up in the air (how’s that for non-committal? Yep, it’s playoff time.) But here’s my outsider’s take on the sitch with Sid:
Do the Penguins unequivocally need him to beat Tampa? No. They’ve proven as much, generally speaking, with a 23-13-5 record since their captain last dressed, though they did fall to the Lightning a few weeks back in a 2-1 decision in Tampa that locked up a playoff spot for the home squad.
But could they use him? Now, there’s a question that doesn’t even need to be answered.
That’s just the kicker for me. Pittsburgh doesn’t necessarily need Sidney Crosby to be successful in the series and, if they manage to build, say, a two-game lead at any point, I think the likelihood of his involvement decreases drastically until the next round. Why risk anything, that is, if it isn’t totally necessary?
But if the Pens fall behind a game or two, or if this one goes to seven, I think you’ll see Crosby in the Pittsburgh lineup. And that’s quite the trump card to use – again, if they have to.
The only way to approach this series, then, for Lightning head coach Guy Boucher and his squad is to assume Crosby will indeed play. You certainly can’t gameplan otherwise and then get burned by a “surprise” return for Sid. Not surprisingly, Boucher is on board with just this rationale, telling the St. Pete Times on Monday, “To me, he’s playing. Period.”
Well, we’ll see. Again, I think it depends on how the series begins to unfold. Of course, it remains possible that we could end up seeing #87 in game one. Stranger things have happened. But enough about that Crosby guy… There are other factors to consider in this series.
Anyone looking at Boucher as a first-timer when it comes to the Stanley Cup playoffs shouldn’t look long. Yes, by definition, this was his rookie season as a bench boss in the National Hockey League but, looking back, there was nothing to indicate as much beyond the 0-0-0 career record heading into the season. Boucher adeptly defined roles for each player on the roster and the buy-in factor, to a man, was never an issue. Despite shaky goaltending through the first half of the season, Boucher kept the Lightning ship steady and had them poised for a run at the division title before Washington got white-hot down the stretch. Tampa Bay effectively managed to avoid a substantial losing streak all year until a 2-6-4 slide in March where Boucher refused to panic, calmed the masses and got his club back on track by winning six of their final seven regular season games. And though regular season success, especially in a coach’s first season at the highest of hockey levels, does not automatically translate to the postseason, doubters need only look at the opposing bench in this very series and Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma, who was promoted from AHL Wilkes-Barre in mid-season in 2008-09 and took the Pens all the way to a Stanley Cup championship.
That experience may give Bylsma a slight edge, technically-speaking, but there shouldn’t be anyone looking anywhere near Guy Boucher’s direction, if they’re looking for a chink in the Lightning armor.
Instead, if there are areas of concern, I’m looking toward Tampa’s defense, which has shown marked improvement over recent seasons (though that isn’t exactly a merit-worthy achievement, if we’re staying honest here) but has been susceptible to the odd turnover in their own zone and an inability to clear the puck at times – both killers in the postseason that will have to be avoided. Look for Pittsburgh to bring a heavy forecheck and try to force the Lightning blueliners into making bad decisions.
Elsewhere, for as lost as the Lightning’s power play looked at stretches this season, it finished sixth in the league at 20.5%. Pittsburgh’s penalty-killers were the NHL’s best, denying 86.1% of opponents’ chances with the man-advantage. A formidable power play versus a powerful shorthanded unit would even out in the end, one might think, but there is a window of opportunity here for the Penguins that could swing series momentum in their favor.
Tampa Bay’s power play unit has the firepower to get awful hot real fast but it also proved to be incredibly sloppy at times. In fact, the Bolts surrendered a league-high 16 shorthanded goals against in the regular season and Pittsburgh was tied for second in the league with 13 shorties scored themselves.
A team tallying when down a man has long been the calling card for momentum swings within a game. In a playoff series, even a single shorthanded goal could turn the entire round on its head. With that in mind, the Lightning are going to have to find a happy medium with the extra man, tempering the innate aggression that comes with wanting to bury power play chances by exhibiting great care of the puck. Otherwise, this seemingly nitpicky quirk of a stat could prove to be a major difference-maker in the series.
(I could have tossed that down the cliché route and hit you with, “Special teams will be crucial.” But what fun would that have been?)
In goal, the Lightning will rely on the services of cagey veteran Dwayne Roloson, who will look to duplicate the magical run to the Cup Final he put together for the Edmonton Oilers in 2006, before succumbing to a knee injury in game one. Countless references to Roloson’s age (41) will be made, undoubtedly, but those on the Lightning side of things would prefer to call him “battle-tested” and he has proven in his short Tampa tenure, to be just that, solidifying a very unstable goaltending situation since his acquisition from the New York Islanders on New Year’s Day.
When Roloson was brought in, the early assumption was that Dan Ellis would remain for the long haul to serve as his backup and that Mike Smith would be the odd man out. In the short-term, that proved a good guess, as Smith was waived and assigned to AHL Norfolk, where he played six games for the Admirals. But, ultimately, Ellis was dealt to Anaheim and Smith brought back through re-entry waivers and, since his return, the latter has performed admirably. Should anything unfortunate befall Roloson, the Lightning can once again have every confidence in Smith as a fallback option.
On the Pittsburgh side of things in goal, Marc-Andre Fleury has had a remarkable season, with some calling his merits worthy of Hart Trophy consideration. However you want to anoint “The Flower” for his work this season, his status as a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender is secure. Having been there in the past, who’s to say he can’t do it again? The Lightning will look to stomp that egg before it gets a chance to hatch, naturally and, speaking of stomping, if things get hairy at all in this series, let us not forget Brent “One-Punch” Johnson, who serves as Fleury’s backup. (Easy joke, little context… Long day, sue me.)
Given the evolution of each of these two teams in the second half of the season, as well as the potential for excellence in goal on each side, a tightly-contested, relatively low-scoring series is what I’m expecting and that’s probably how Pittsburgh will want to play it. After all, Tampa Bay’s scoring depth is potentially lethal, from the obvious guns in Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier, to those that only showed it in flashes this season, largely due to injury, like Simon Gagne, Ryan Malone and Steve Downie. Gagne’s value to the Lightning was always going to be measured by his success in the postseason and given his penchant for scoring big goals in the playoffs in years past with the Flyers, I’m sure he has every intent of performing similarly in his new home. Offensive contributions from role players – an invaluable quality of teams that perform well in the playoffs over the years – can be expected from the Lightning as well, if the regular season is any indicator, with Teddy Purcell, Dominic Moore, Sean Bergenheim and Nate Thompson all chipping in double-digit goal numbers this year.
Ultimately, with the adjustments the Penguins were able to make without Crosby, Malkin and a host of others at different points this season, altering their team game and looking about as playoff-ready as a regular season team can in winning far more than their fair share of important one-goal games, I think the advantage remains with Pittsburgh as this series gets underway. A key to their success will be limiting Tampa Bay’s offensive success, as they may not have the firepower to keep pace with the Lightning should the floodgates open even a little. If the Bolts score four-plus, they’ll win the game, more than likely. But Fleury has proven capable of keeping the opposition attack at bay and the Lightning are just as prone to falling victim to a hot goaltender as any other team. That the Penguins can play the Crosby card if they choose to do so (or if dire need arises) only reaffirms for me what will undoubtedly cost me popularity points locally as I make my series prediction. And though I can easily see things going the other way, as I expect a rash of one-goal games and more than one visit to overtime in the series, I can’t get away from thinking this crucial first step in the Lightning’s return to prominence will die at just that. Pittsburgh in six
Elsewhere, in rapid-fire fashion:Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
(1)Washington vs. (8)NYRangers
I’ve been saying it all year: The rejuvenation of the Lightning and the push that they gave the Capitals in the Southeast Division has already elevated Washington to a level they haven’t seen together before. Henrik Lundqvist might steal one – hell, I’ll give him two – but no first-round ouster for the Caps this year. Washington in six
(2)Philadelphia vs. (7)Buffalo
Last year’s Cup run had a lot to do with an unexpected run for an unexpected hero in goal for Philadelphia and, though Michael Leighton is back on their roster, the Flyers are giving shots one and two to Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher. If they have to get to goalie option number three, they’re already in trouble – and I think that’s exactly where they’ll be right off the bat, staring down a big money goaltender in Ryan Miller at the other end for the Sabres. Upset special. Buffalo in six
(3)Boston vs. (6)Montreal
History, hatred, controversy… It’s the Bruins and the Habs in the playoffs once again. Pundits everywhere want us to believe the Canadiens are game for a real fight here – but they didn’t show any of that in getting dusted by a touchdown in Boston last month, in the return engagement after Chara/Pacioretty. They’ll show more pride than they did in that one game in this upcoming series, but the Habs are no match for the big, bad Bruins. Boston in six
(1)Vancouver vs. (8)Chicago
I hate what I’m about to do here. I really do. I hate it because I hate the fact that the Blackhawks backed into the playoffs, failing to connect on a win-and-in opportunity. But, after such an amazingly successful regular season, the Canucks have disappointment written all over them and, as it turns out, I’ve never been a big believer in their golden boy, Roberto Luongo. The ‘Hawks may not have another Cup run in them but they’re still the champs until someone says they’re not. And I don’t believe Vancouver has that statement in them. Prove me wrong, Kesler and Kompany. Chicago in seven
(2)San Jose vs. (7)Los Angeles
Without the injuries… Oh, without the injuries, Kings, I’d be all kinds of in your corner here, especially since the Sharks have burned me (and everyone else) so much in the recent past. But we can’t change the fact that Los Angeles hits this series sans its two leading scorers in Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams and I just don’t see them getting past that. Because this is San Jose we’re talking about, however, you just know they’re going to put a scare into their faithful, don’t you? San Jose in seven
(3)Detroit vs. (6)Phoenix
They’re not an eight-seed but is there a bigger perceived underdog in all the playoffs than the Coyotes? I think not. It’d be a great story, were they to knock off the mighty Red Wings… It’s just not going to happen (unless Jimmy Howard goes down, that is, cause my confidence in Joey MacDonald is less than soaring). The Wings get to play things carefully with Henrik Zetterberg in this series too. No need to rush him back unless they need him and I don’t think that they will. Detroit in five
(4)Anaheim vs. (5)Nashville
For a time, it looked like the Ducks wouldn’t even be part of the postseason party. Then again, that time came and went for just about every team in the Western Conference, didn’t it? The Preds have been primed for a playoff upset for years and with a favorable 4/5 matchup here against a team that relies heavily on one line for offensive production, this might finally be their time for just that. Wild card game/series-breaker? How about Teemu Selanne? What a year he put together for Anaheim. Even so, it’s hunch time in this one. And my hunch says the Predators are ready for some second round action. Nashville in six
Coming tomorrow: A closer look at the Tampa Bay/Pittsburgh series with five burning questions for some Steel City experts!
Filed in: Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens, Nashville Predators, New York Rangers, Phoenix Coyotes, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, | Beasts of the Southeast | Permalink
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