Can Bolts capitalize against Crosby-less Pens?

DAN DI SCIULLO, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 2:55 PM ET

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (4th seed, East)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 49-25-8

2010 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Ottawa 4-2 in conference quarterfinals; lost to Montreal 4-3 in conference semifinals.

The biggest question heading into the opening round of the playoffs is the status of Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby. With the postseason about to start it's still unclear whether Sid the Kid will be available at all against Tampa Bay.

Crosby appeared to be on his way to a second Hart Trophy this season before suffering a concussion in early January. The head injury caused Crosby to miss the final 41 games of the regular season, and although Pittsburgh's captain has been skating with the team for several weeks, he has still not been cleared for contact.

Of course, Crosby's presence will be missed should he not be able to play in this series, but at least there is a chance he will return. Fellow star forward Evgeni Malkin, on the other hand, is out for the rest of the season following surgery to his right knee in February. Malkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy for Pittsburgh when it claimed the Stanley Cup title two years ago.

The absence of either Crosby or Malkin would seem to spell doom for Pittsburgh's chances at a deep postseason run, but head coach Dan Bylsma and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury helped keep the ship afloat without either player for the final 29 games of the regular season. The Pens went 15-10-4 down the stretch and stayed alive in the race for the Atlantic Division title until the final weekend of the season.

Naturally, Pittsburgh became a different team without Crosby and Malkin in the lineup. The club was forced to grit out five shootout victories during an 8-2-0 stretch to end the season, so this could be a series where overtime plays a big role.

To put Crosby's importance to Pittsburgh's scoring in perspective, it's important to note that with 32 goals and 34 assists he led the club in both goals and points this season. Malkin was tied for fifth on the team with 37 points in just 43 games.

Without Malkin, and possibly Crosby, the scoring load in this series will fall to players like Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, and Tyler Kennedy.

Staal missed the first half of the season due to injury, but was able to record 11 goals and 30 points in 42 contests. During most of his career with the Pens, Staal had been used as a shut-down centerman, but his offensive output will be important to Pittsburgh this spring.

Kunitz had 23 goals and 25 assists in 66 games for the Pens this year, while Kennedy set personal bests in both goals (21) and assists (24). Kunitz had 11 points (4g, 7a) in 13 playoff games for Pittsburgh last year, but Kennedy failed to register a point in 10 tests during the 2009 postseason.

James Neal and Alex Kovalev were acquired in trades during the season to help the offense, but neither player exactly set the world on fire with the Pens this year. Neal had just one goal and five assists in 20 games following his trade from Dallas and Kovalev had seven points (2g, 5a) in the same number of contests.

Of course, the Pens will also be without controversial forward Matt Cooke for this series as he is serving a suspension that will last through the opening round of the playoffs. Cooke, who is a valuable penalty killer for Pittsburgh, was given the ban for delivering a blind-side, elbow to the head of Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh on March 20.

Pittsburgh's best offensive weapon without Crosby and Malkin in the lineup could be defenseman Kris Letang, who was the only Penguin other than Crosby to reach 50 points this season.

Letang had eight goals and 42 assists in 2010-11, proving he could run the power play after the departure of Sergei Gonchar last offseason. Pittsburgh finished 25th in power play efficiency this year, but it's safe to say the club was hurt by the loss of Crosby and Malkin. Pittsburgh's penalty killing unit, on the other hand, was the best in the NHL this season.

In addition to the two-way prowess of Letang, the Pens also boast steady veterans Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, and Brooks Orpik at the back end.

Fleury, meanwhile, will try to build off one of his best seasons as an NHLer this spring. After losing six of his first seven games of the season, the former No. 1 overall pick righted the ship and ended with a 36-20-5 record and a career-best 2.32 goals-against average.

At just 26 years of age, Fleury has already won a Stanley Cup title and played in 62 playoff games. Bylsma hopes Fleury's experience will be a source of strength for his club this spring, especially if Crosby remains sidelined.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (5th seed, East)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 46-25-11

2009 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify

(Sports Network) - Like his counterpart in Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay head coach Guy Boucher deserves a huge share of the credit for his team's success this season.

Last June, Boucher, who was fresh off a successful first year as a head coach in the AHL, was chosen to lead the Bolts by first-year GM Steve Yzerman. After the Lightning had missed the postseason in three straight years before Boucher's arrival, the rookie head coach had Tampa in position to win the Southeast Division title for much of the season before a late push by Washington.

Boucher's Bolts improved their win total from 34 in 2009-10 to 46 this season and also jumped from 80 points to 103. It was just the second time in franchise history that Tampa Bay had recorded 100 points in a season. The other time was in 2003-04, when the Lightning won their only Stanley Cup title.

The Lightning enter the postseason on a hot streak after playing poorly for most of the month of March. Tampa Bay finished the regular season with wins in seven of its last eight contests and that's after going just 2-6-4 from March 2-25.

Tampa Bay's strength is clearly on offense, as the club boasts the likes of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Simon Gagne up front.

Stamkos led the club with 45 goals and was second to St. Louis with 91 points this season, but the 21-year-old did not inspire confidence with his output down the stretch.

Stamkos, the first overall pick of the 2008 draft, had two goals and five points over his final 12 games of the season, and managed to score just seven time over his last 31 contests. This will be Stamkos' first-ever NHL playoff series.

Lecavalier was the opposite of Stamkos this year, as he started the regular season off slow and finished strong. The captain had just eight goals and 23 points through January, but finished the campaign with 25 markers and 54 points.

St. Louis finished three points shy of his career-high with a team-high 99 points this season. Still playing alongside Lecavalier, the diminutive winger had 31 goals and played in all 82 games for the fifth straight season.

All told, Tampa Bay had 10 players with 10 or more goals and six of those skaters had at least 17 markers. Gagne, who was acquired in a trade with Philadelphia last summer, has the most playoff experience of Tampa's secondary scorers and had nine goals for the Flyers during last year's run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Former Penguin forward Ryan Malone could also be a big factor for the Lightning in this series. A Pittsburgh-area native, Malone signed a seven-year deal with Tampa in the summer of 2008. After posting 26 and 21 goals, respectively, in his first two seasons with the Bolts, Malone battled injuries in 2010-11 and recorded 14 goals in 54 games.

While the offensive attack is formidable, Tampa runs into trouble in its own end of the ice.

The club finished tied for 21st in the league with 234 goals surrendered this year, although the acquisition of goaltender Dwayne Roloson in a trade with the Islanders back in January has helped mask the Lightning's defensive deficiencies.

Roloson played in 34 games with Tampa and posted an 18-12-4 record, a 2.56 GAA and four shutouts over that stretch.

The 41-year-old has played in 33 postseason games as an NHLer, but he hasn't been in the playoffs since leading Edmonton to its surprise run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006. Of course, the 2006 Oilers, who began that postseason as the eighth seed in the West, wound up losing in seven games to Carolina, but it wasn't due to the play of Roloson, who was 12-5 with a 2.33 GAA during that playoff run.

Tampa's defense is led by Brett Clark, who paced the Lightning blue line with nine goals and 31 points this season. Victor Hedman, the second overall pick of the 2009 draft, was second amongst Tampa defensemen with 26 points (3g, 23a).

Veterans Mattias Ohlund, Eric Brewer and Pavel Kubina are also solid defensemen, but the Lightning's defensive group as a whole has left something to be desired this season.

Tampa's special teams units were both ranked in the top-10 this year. The Bolts were sixth in power-play efficiency and eighth in penalty killing.

MATCHUP

The last time Crosby played was in a home game against Tampa on Jan. 5. Malkin also played in that game and Pittsburgh wound up scoring a season-high eight goals in the 8-1 victory over the Lightning.

All told, Pittsburgh and the Bolts split four meetings this season and this playoff series will mark the first-ever postseason matchup between these clubs.

Since Crosby has still not been allowed to partake in contract drills, it seems more and more likely that he is going to be unavailable for this series, but Pittsburgh has proven it can grind out wins without its captain.

After losing in the second round to Montreal last year, the Pens would like to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the third time in four seasons this spring. That will be difficult unless Crosby returns at some point, but the Penguins should have enough to get past the Lightning in Round 1.

This series could come down to goaltending as many playoff series do, and that matchup favors Fleury and the Penguins.

Tampa has Pittsburgh outgunned in terms of offensive firepower, but the Penguins will rely on timely scoring to win this first-round series.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Penguins in 7


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