Two teams built for speed meet in this intriguing matchup beginning Friday, May 13 and when asked to predict the winner of this Eastern Conference final, I’m ready to flip a coin. Tampa Bay was the #2 seed from the Atlantic Division and took down the those pesky Detroit DeadThings in the first round 4-1. The Penguins, also the 2 seed from the Metro, faced off against a familiar foe the New York Rangers and defeated the Blueshirts in five games also.
In Round Two, the Penguins faced the Presidents Cup winning Washington Capitals and were considered by many to be the underdogs in the series, however the Pens had the best record in the league coming down the stretch. Scratch the Caps off the list as the Pens rode rookie goaltender Matt Murray to a stunning series win over Washington in six games. No Ovie in the East Final again.
Tampa Bay faced a New York Islanders team in the semis and it wasn’t a surprise that they prevailed against a fairly one dimensional Isles team. New York’s star center and captain John Tavares was the points leader and drove the bus for an Islander team that had trouble scoring when he wasn’t on the ice. Tampa used its speed and balanced scoring lines, plus some OT magic to defeat New York and G Ben Bishop was very good.
Looking ahead to this matchup, one finds many story lines. Sid the Kid, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are core players left over from their 2009 Stanley Cup winning team. Tampa counters with the Triplet Line of Ondre Palat, Tyler Johnston and Nikita Kucherov. Speed, speed, skill and more speed. Tampa also has a stud defenseman in Victor Hedman, an omnipresent defender with a knack for scoring from the point.
Pittsburgh has added depth to their scoring with the addition of Phil Kessell, Carl Hagelin and former Sharks property center Nick Bonino, who scored the OT game winner on Tuesday in game six to send the Caps packing for the summer. The Pens have some kids in the lineup on defense and could be vulnerable.
Tampa has just about everyone back from the team that went to the Cup Finals a year ago and lost in six games to the Blackhawks. Alex Killorn and Ryan Callahan add the grit and scoring to complement the Triplet Line. Pittsburgh has enough veteran leadership to know what it takes to win.
This will be a very entertaining, uptempo series played between two very quick and skilled teams. Tampa has the edge because of goaltending, Ben Bishop should outplay the Pens rookie goalie Matt Murray. Coaching favors the Lightning also because their coach, John Cooper has been masterful in overcoming the loss of star Steven Stamkos and they went to the Cup last year. On the flip side Penguins coach Mike Sullivan took over in midseason and has less experience.
Lightning in six games to return to the Cup Final.