Wednesday, April 13, 2011

First Round Preview: Pens vs. Bolts

This is going to be the most awkward playoff series ever. First of all, it's Tampa Bay. They usually get about 30 fans for their regular season games, but considering its the playoffs, they may get up to 40. Wherever the hell they play hockey (apparently it's named for some newspaper that nobody reads because it's 2011) is going to be ripe with Penguins fans.

Truly, it's a shame that nobody comes out to support this Tampa Bay team. Their offensive firepower is nothing to scoff at. Even beyond the obvious stars like Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Simon Gagne, the Lightning have plenty of 3rd and 4th liners that can put the puck in the net (Former Penguins Ryan Malone and Dominic Moore, along with unsung guys like Teddy Purcell and Sean Bergenheim). Their defensemen? Eh, not so intimidating. The Penguins danced laps around touted youngster Victor Hedman. With the exception of Brett Clark, they are a bevy of no-names.

Then we get to what has always been the Lightning's achilles heel: goaltending. The Lightning have given up 6 or more goals TEN times this season. The Penguins, to compare, have done it only twice. That means, playing the odds, that one of these games the Penguins will put up a six-spot. Now admittedly, the Bolts have been far better since Dwayne Roloson took the helm between the pipes. The Penguins have seen both sides of Dwayne Roloson: the guy who seems completely lost (the Pens chased him after giving up 5 goals on 23 shots), and the guy who can steal games in between cashing his Social Security checks. Without a doubt, Roloson is the story of this series. The only way Tampa Bay can win is if Roloson outplays Fleury. Teams without consistent goaltending get lit up in the playoffs (See: 2009-10 Washington Capitals).

Beyond the awkwardness of playing the Lightning in the playoffs (which still just feels weird), playing a playoff series without Crosby and Malkin really wasn't part of our plan for this year. Although we adapted very well during the regular season without the duo, the playoffs are always another beast entirely. The job that Bylsma, Fleury and our makeshift lines and defensive pairings have done is beyond admirable. But how far can it conceivably take us? The answer probably lies somewhere in between heart and momentum. We know that the heart is there. We see it every time they take the ice. The momentum may be there as well. The Penguins are 12-4 since that craptastic overtime loss against the Devils on March 4th. If the Penguins can continue to muster the same resolve during these playoffs, they'll be an extremely difficult team to eliminate.

Final prediction: Pens in six.

Series MVP: Marc-Andre Fleury. It's almost crazy to think it could be anyone else.

Tampa Bay MVP: Martin St. Louis. Again, it's ridiculous to think it could be anyone else. He's probably the least intimidating person in the world until he takes the ice.

Unsung Hero: Mark Letestu. He's only played in 64 games this season, but he's proved that he can be a force when healthy. Like most of this team, he plays with a lot of energy and guts, and he couples that play with a great goal-scoring touch. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Letestu put 2-3 pucks behind Dwayne Roloson, and to do so at a big moment.

Let's go Pens.

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