Lose and learn series for Lightning

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:00 PM ET

The Tampa Bay Lightning is too well-coached and, on paper anyway, has too much offensive talent to be completely counted out of their latest return to the playoffs.

Stranger things have happened, sure, but it's likely that down 3-1 and facing elimination on the road Saturday in Pittsburgh the odds are greatly stacked against the Bolts.

For them to force a Game 6 back in Tampa Monday, they will have to change in a hurry in a number of areas.

For one, some of the big guns of the Lightning offence need to wake up. The Penguins have outshot them in the series and while this is in part because of some strong defence by Pittsburgh, Tampa doesn't seem to have grasped the concept that good things can happen from firing the puck on the net.

The Lightning could also use some more spotty play from Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury who struggled in a 5-1 loss in Game 2. Funny how, after that game, many felt we were heading for a long series.

Even though it's a No. 4 seed vs. a No. 5, these two teams are significantly farther apart than those rankings entering the playoffs. The Penguins, remember, were one regular-season win away from topping the Eastern Conference while the Lightning struggled some down the stretch.

That said, if not this spring then one not too far down the road, Tampa may be ready to be a factor in the post-season. Rookie seasons by general manager Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher have set a solid foundation for the future and the experience gained against the Penguins, even if it is shorter than hoped, will serve them well.

Where's Sid?/

If there is any real news about Penguins captain Sidney Crosby's progress, the Penguins aren't saying. Coach Dan Bylsma loosely addressed Crosby's status again Thursday making it sound as though a return is still distant.

"There is no timetable," Bylsma said. "If you are under the impression he is moving closer ... he has to pass to the next stage of what he can do and that has not happened yet.

"He continues to keep going, but we need to see him progress further down the road before any kind of timetable is talked about."

The progress Bylsma refers to is to be cleared for contact, although that appears to be a grey area. If, for example, Crosby is cleared to take some hits, how much longer before he can get some game action?

It's only a hunch, but my guess is that if Crosby is to return at all, it will be when they truly need him in a series. That's one of many reasons Wednesday's double-overtime win was so big for the Penguins. Barring a major collapse against the Lightning, the win essentially bought No. 87 an added week of recovery time.

What's Cookin'?

Though they are seemingly in control of the opening round and he is less noticeable than the superstar absence of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, you can bet the Penguins will welcome the return of noted headhunter Matt Cooke for the next round.

Love him or despise him, Cooke is the kind of player who is built for the playoffs, especially as the spring runs deeper.

Seeking Stamkos

With just one assist through the first four games of the series, something is clearly not right with Lightning star Steven Stamkos.

Much as he struggled late in the season, Stamkos has been such a non-factor in the post-season that it has led to speculation he is playing hurt. That theory has been only mildly denied by the Lightning for obvious competitive reasons and wouldn't be confirmed until the series is over anyway.

When fourth-liners from the opposition such as Arron Asham (three goals) are outscoring your top gun, you know it's going to be a struggle. Worse yet, Stamkos has just five shots in four games.

Injury or not, the upside for the Lightning will be the experience gained for Stamkos. He'll be a more effective player down the road because of it.


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