It’s been said that the second round series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins was realistically the true Eastern Conference Final, thanks to this whole goofy division seeding thing in which the first and second placed teams in the conference have to meet in the second round. But to be fair, the Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t really a batting practice, pre-Stanley-Cup-Final team either, as we’ve been by the way they handled the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders with relative ease.
Even though, really, you’d expect getting by Washington to be enough to advance to the Final, the Lightning certainly belong in that same class as the three elite teams in the East, so I doubt this is going to be a cake walk.
The Lightning and Penguins played each other three times in a relatively short period of time between the middle of January and late February. Since these games all happened sort of recently, I think they provide a fair indication of how these teams match up, considering this went down after the Penguins hired Mike Sullivan and got hot. Actually, when you look at Pittsburgh’s schedule and results this year, after they got rolling in the second half of the season, the Lightning were one of the only teams that gave them a rough time, as Tampa Bay managed to win each of their three of their meetings.
The first game was back on Jan. 15, in which Tampa Bay won 5-4 in overtime, despite the fact that they were outshot by the Penguins 40-25. The Triplets Line were the only players on the Lightning that had a positive Corsi For differential that game, while Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both ate the Lightning alive, posting 81.6 and 72.0 Corsi For percentages respectively.
The next meeting was tighter in terms of scoring chances and meaningful possession, as the Penguins edged Tampa in shots 30-28, but another poor goaltending performance from Marc-Andre Fleury helped the Lightning to a 6-3 win. And finally, on Feb. 20, we had a repeat of the first meeting, where the Penguins pounded Tampa Bay with chances, but Ben Bishop was excellent, stopping 37 of 39 shots.
What can we take from this? Tampa Bay had much better goaltending throughout the season series, but Pittsburgh was generally the better team. Judging by the way things have gone for Matt Murray so far, I think that might be out the window in the Eastern Final.
By the Numbers
The Lightning and Penguins are pretty damn identical when you look at their underlying numbers.
They rank fourth and seventh respectively in the league in Goals For per hour, and they rank fourth and 10th in Corsi For per hour, putting them both in the category of elite teams at generating offence and driving the play.
While Pittsburgh has the slight edge in generating offence, the Lightning are better at suppressing it, as they rank seventh in Corsi Against, while the Penguins ranks 11th. That said, the Penguins have a stronger team save percentage, leading to them having identical numbers in terms of goals against at even strength per hour.
Oddly enough, while both teams boast a tremendous amount of offensive talent, neither team is all too good on the power play. The Lightning were better than only the Jets and Leafs with the man advantage, scoring at a 15.8 per cent efficiency, while the Penguins were just below league average, covering on 18.4 per cent of their chances. On the other side of that coin, both the Penguins and Lightning are excellent on the penalty kill, largely because neither team takes many penalties.
What can we take from this? The Penguins produce offence at a higher rate than the Lightning do, both in terms of generating chances and ultimately converting on them, both at even strength and on the power play, but both teams are equally as strong at oppressing the other team’s chances.
There’s no real point at looking at Pittsburgh’s regular season data for goaltending, because as we all know, Matt Murray is on another planet right now. Despite playing in only 13 games over the course of the season (he was excellent then, too), Murray has a .935 save percentage in nine games so far this playoffs, and is a key reason why the Penguins were able to get past the Capitals in the second round.
Ben Bishop, on the other hand, has been even better, posting a .938 save percentage through his 10 games, including a couple shutouts. Of course, to be fair here, Bishop has had the easier workload of the two, as the Lightning defence did an excellent job at holding both the Wings and Islanders to very few high danger scoring chances.
What can we take from this? Both teams have strong goaltending. Bishop has been excellent when called upon, while Murray has singlehandedly stolen a couple of games for the Penguins. The only advantage here is that the Lightning have a better backup plan in Andrei Vasilevskiy, as Fleury, if he had to play, would be coming in cold.
Like I said, this isn’t going to be an easy walk for the Penguins, even though they apparently already made it though the Conference Final by beating Washington. That said, I do think they’re the better team here, and that while Tampa will put up a solid fight, the Penguins will win in seven.