PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis. Jaromir Jagr. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Every Pittsburgh Penguins team that has reached the NHL playoffs since the 1980s has featured the NHL’s best player, one of its top scorers, or both.
When it comes to star power, the Penguins are difficult to match in April, May and June, when a Hall of Fame resume is a virtual requirement to play on one of their top lines.
Except these playoffs—one reason why Pittsburgh's opening-round Eastern Conference series versus the Tampa Bay Lightning is to hard to handicap. It's also why the matchup, which begins Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center, is so different than it would have been only a few months ago, especially with the Penguins so out of character.
Tampa Bay, in the playoffs for the first time since 2007, has four skaters with more points than any healthy Penguins player, led by the offensively gifted Martin St. Louis (45 goals, 99 points) and Steven Stamkos (91 points). The Lightning possess more offensive depth, more proven scorers, more stars than the Penguins, who begin the postseason without knowing if megastar Crosby will take another shift until October.
Crosby, out since Jan. 6 with a concussion, skated with his teammates during practice Tuesday but has not been cleared for non-game contact. He is all but certain to miss the series; Malkin, the playoffs MVP of two seasons ago, had season-ending knee surgery more than two months ago.
The Penguins are offering no sign that Crosby is anywhere close to playing.
“There's no change in Sidney Crosby’s status,”coach Dan Bylsma said Tuesday.“The fact that he's practising with the team has not changed his progression. He's not been able to progress to the next standpoint yet.”
While it's hard to imagine the Penguins of the 1990s winning Stanley Cups without Lemieux and Francis, this club is convinced it can win this series—and maybe more—without Crosby and Malkin.
Playing half the season without their big names, Bylsma's Penguins transformed themselves into a defensively responsible, make-few-mistakes team that—and this no doubt shocked the rest of the NHL—won 49 games and finished with 106 points. They also led the NHL in penalty killing for the first time as goalie Marc-Andre Fleury bounced back from an awful October to enjoy his steadiest season with a career-low 2.32 goals-against average.
Just like pitching in the World Series, goaltending can be the overriding factor in determining a playoff winner and the Penguins believe Fleury gives them a significant edge over Tampa's 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher, who oversaw the swift turnaround of a team that finished only fourth in its division last season, isn't convinced he won't see Crosby in a series that continues with Game 2 on Friday night.
“We can't say, if he's not there, they don't have a great team,”Boucher said.“They're a great team. With him, they're an amazing team. We're playing against a great or amazing team, so we have to be at our best.”
The Lightning weren't that in Pittsburgh, where they lost this season by scores of 5-1 and 8-1. Yet the series likely will come down to whether Fleury and a skilled collection of defencemen (Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek) can slow the Lightning’s proven stable of scorers, including 2004 Stanley Cup-champion holdovers St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.
Maybe the Penguins don't need to be this season's version of the don't-give-an-inch-of-ice New Jersey Devils. But they almost certainly won't advance unless they are the defensively superior team. After Crosby was hurt, their 2.34 goals-per-game average ranked only 25th, and their power play was the league’s worst.
For the season, Tampa Bay averaged 2.94 goals per game.
“We've played the last 30-something games without our power offensive guys,”said Chris Kunitz, who leads all healthy Penguins forwards with 23 goals.“We have built a defensive game.
"Our goaltender has been our best player, by far. We have played some tighter games, which gives you experience for the playoffs, as there are a lot of close games.”
Added Penguins centre Jordan Staal:“Once you get in, anything can happen.”
The Penguins were reminded of that last spring, when the two-time Stanley Cup finalists were bounced by Montreal during a second-round upset in which Fleury played poorly, getting pulled during Game 7.
While the Penguins have far more playoff-tested players than the Lightning, they have no experience playing elimination games without Crosby or Malkin, who had a combined 59 goals in 62 playoff games the last four seasons. They also haven't previously met Tampa Bay in the playoffs.
“We can't really judge until we get there how we are going to do without those guys,”Kunitz said.“We believe we are a good team. We have confidence, we finished with a high point total because we are a good team and play a good system.”
Pittsburgh forward James Neal practised Tuesday and will play despite an unspecified injury that occurred Friday against the New York Islanders.