SERIES STARTS: Friday, 8 p.m. ET in Pittsburgh.
THE LIGHTNING WIN IF… Whereas Pittsburgh got one goal from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined in the second round, Tampa's best players continue to be its best players. The NHL may have to cut the Conn Smythe Trophy into pieces and hand them out to several Bolts if they win the Stanley Cup. Nikita Kucherov has been a monster, ripping off nine goals in 10 games, and Tyler Johnson, last year's league-leading playoff scorer, has recaptured the magic with 13 points in 10 games.
Towering Victor Hedman presents the Penguins with a challenge they haven't faced so far in the playoffs: a dominant all-around defenseman who can completely change the course of a game on his own, just like Kris Letang does for Pittsburgh. The New York Rangers had Ryan McDonagh, but he missed part of Round 1 and played through a fractured hand when he did return. Washington's John Carlson also played at less than 100 percent. Hedman is a caliber of beast the Pens have not battled yet. He's tough to beat 1-on-1, he averages 27:30 of ice time in the playoffs, and he's a deadly offensive force, too, with nine points in 10 games. All that and we haven't even mentioned Ben Bishop, arguably the best goaltender in the playoffs so far. He has a 1.89 goals-against average, .938 save percentage and two shutouts. He's allowed two or fewer goals in eight of 10 starts, carrying over the remarkable regular-season consistency that made him a Vezina Trophy finalist. Jonathan Drouin continues to deliver as a playmaker after drawing into the lineup at the end of the season. The Lightning still badly need Steven Stamkos up front and Anton Stralman on defense but have proven in these playoffs just how deep and talent-rich they are as a franchise. They've lost two games in two rounds despite playing each one without their best forward and second-best defenseman. Coach Jon Cooper has his remaining top players playing at their absolute peaks right now, and Tampa is extremely tough to beat when that happens.
THE PENGUINS WIN IF… They continue to trump all with their unmatched speed and surprising depth. Tampa can skate with Pittsburgh better than the Rangers or Capitals could – but the Penguins seem to really do their damage with their lower lines. Trotting the "third" unit of Nick Bonino between Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin has been a matchup nightmare for opponents throughout these playoffs. Opposing defensemen can't seem to keep up with the constant, relentless, furious attacking style coach Mike Sullivan deploys, and Kessel continues to blossom playing as the primary puck carrier on a line away from Crosby or Malkin. The Pens have seemingly boasted the inferior defense corps on paper going into each series, but this group continues to impress and overachieve. Kris Letang is in a class of his own, a legit game breaker, and steady Olli Maatta continues to improve, but this team won Game 4 against Washington without either of them. A big reason why: Trevor Daley. He seemed left for dead when he didn't work out in Chicago and the Blackhawks flipped him to Pittsburgh for Rob Scuderi in December. Daley, though, fits this new Penguins style with his speed and ability to push the puck up ice quickly. As great as Bishop has been, rookie Pens goalie Matt Murray has stared 200 feet down the ice at Henrik Lundqvist in Round 1 and Braden Holtby in Round 2. Murray, a top-rated prospect breaking out at the perfect time, has been praised repeatedly by the Pittsburgh organization for his mental toughness, and he's shown it this post-season. He won't be intimidated. Marc-Andre Fleury is healthy enough to play, so there's a chance he draws into the Penguins' net in this series, but Sullivan can't mess with what's working, can he? Either way, the Pens' goaltending is a strength.
LIGHTNING: Stamkos' blood clot continues to keep him out of these playoffs, and there's no indication he's close to returning. General manager Steve Yzerman
won't rule Stamkos out, but
he isn't taking regular contact yet in practices. The more intriguing name to watch: Stralman, who is recovering from a fractured tibia. He's a bit closer to returning than Stamkos. Stralman would almost certainly reunite with Hedman, his regular defense partner, upon returning to Tampa's lineup, and the two of them together are as strong of a shutdown duo as any in the sport.
When paired together this season 5-on-5, they allowed an outstanding Corsi Against per 60 minutes of 46.13 – while generating a Corsi For of 60.08.
PENGUINS: How crazy is it to list Crosby and Malkin as the Penguins' X-factors? That's how non-existent their offense was in Round 2 versus Washington. Not that they played poorly, especially Crosby, but we expect elite scoring from both these players. Pittsburgh still looked speedy and offensively dangerous without their best guys cooking, so it's scary to imagine how deadly this team will become if even one of Sid and Geno catches fire. And there are a million worse things to bet on than that happening.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn The two teams have superstars up front, but neither team would be where it is today without the engines on the back end. Letang and Hedman are eating huge minutes during these playoffs, and the teams are dominant when they’re on the ice. And that’s a huge chunk of time. Of the teams left, Letang and Hedman rank first and third in percentage of total ice time played at 47.3 and 45.4 percent, respectively. For context, Duncan Keith was at 46.6 percent during last year’s playoffs. When these two teams face off in Round 3, there’s a good chance Letang and Hedman will see a lot of each other. When that’s happened in the past, Letang has eaten Hedman’s lunch, outshooting and outscoring his Bolts by a wide margin. Hedman had the better numbers this season 5-on-5, but Letang had Hedman's number head-to-head. For the Lightning to have a chance, Hedman will have to even things up when these two are on the ice together.
THN'S PICK: PENGUINS in seven games.