The Lightning have battled through injuries to reach their second conference final in a row — and they did it in only 10 games. They may have had the easiest road to this point, getting past the Red Wings and Islanders in five games each, but don’t hold that against the Lightning. Credit to them for making quick work of their first two opponents.
The Penguins, meanwhile, are back to the East final for the first time since 2013, when they were swept by the Boston Bruins. If you had picked the Penguins to make it this far back in November you may have looked crazy, but the team took a sudden turn for the better under coach Mike Sullivan, who they hired on Dec. 12. The last time the Penguins reached a Stanley Cup final was in 2009, when they won the Stanley Cup. At that point, the Crosby and Malkin-led Penguins were a supposed dynasty on the rise, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Is this the year they get back on track?
Here’s a breakdown of the 2016 Eastern Conference final.
CONN SMYTHE CANDIDATE
Tampa Bay — Nikita Kucherov: The top candidate so far has to be Kucherov. The 22-year-old has nine goals to lead all scorers in the playoffs so far, even though he’s played fewer games than some of the other top goal scorers. Kucherov is second to Tyler Johnson on the Lightning with 12 points in 13 games, and has scored at least one point in seven of 10 playoff games. Honourable mention: Ben Bishop, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson
Pittsburgh — Matt Murray: A great story since stepping in for Marc-Andre Fleury when he went down with a concussion, the 21-year-old Murray has been a rock for the Penguins. Of the starting goalies left in the playoffs, Murray and Ben Bishop are first and second in GAA and save percentage. That’s a performance you may have expected from Bishop given his track record, but Murray has come out of nowhere. Honourable mention: Phil Kessel, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin
Tampa Bay: 3-0-0
LAST GAME PLAYED HEAD-TO-HEAD
It was Feb. 20 and the Lightning doubled up the Penguins to complete the season sweep, even though Pittsburgh outshot the Lightning 39-20. Steven Stamkos – who may return to the Lightning lineup at some point in this series – scored his 300th career goal. But the Penguins were without Evgeni Malkin and had Jeff Zatkoff in net.
ADVANCED STATS (regular season):
Lightning: 5on5CF% – 52.2; 5on5Sv% – .930; 5on5Sh% – 7.88; PDO = 100.8
Penguins: 5on5CF% – 52.7; 5on5Sv% – .931; 5on5Sh% – 7.54; PDO = 100.6
LAST TIME THEY MET IN THE PLAYOFFS
In 2011, the Penguins entered the post-season as the No. 4 seed in the East, and the Lightning were No. 5. Pittsburgh won the first game of the series and then took a 3-1 lead after a double overtime win in Game 4. In Game 5, the Lightning hit back with a huge 8-2 win and completed the comeback with 4-2 and 1-0 wins to eliminate the Penguins in seven games.
TAMPA BAY’S HIGHLIGHT OF ROUND 2
Had Game 4 gone the other way, perhaps Tampa Bay’s series against the Islanders would have ended much differently. The Islanders held a 1-0 lead for much of the game, but a Nikita Kucherov goal in the third period would force overtime. There, Jason Garrison buried one of his patented slap shots from the point, putting the Lightning up 3-1 in the series.
PITTSBURGH’S HIGHLIGHT OF ROUND 2
This one’s easy. Game 6 was a wild game in which the Penguins blew a three-goal lead and took three consecutive delay of game penalties for shooting the puck over the glass. But after coming close once early in overtime — only to be stymied by a diving Jay Beagle — the Penguins soon after closed out the series with this goal from Nick Bonino.
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