For several weeks now, it's looked as though the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins would face off in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, and now that the 2011 NHL playoffs are finally here, that expectation is a reality.
Pittsburgh overcame a ton of injuries in the regular season and was still able to grab home-ice advantage in the first round, but that was certainly helped by the fact that the Lightning struggled down the stretch at times. Still, you can't discredit the Pens for a successful change in approach in the absence of both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Meanwhile, the Lightning are a team that's led by a strong defensive system, decent veteran goaltending and a trio of playmaking scorers up front. They're dynamic, but they're also young and not used to this whole playoff thing as a group. Overall, it's one of the more intriguing matchups of the first round.
Dwayne Roloson was a savior for the Bolts this season, coming over from the Islanders in the middle of the year and helping them gain some consistency in nets. Marc-Andre Fleury, however, has been arguably the Penguins' MVP this season, and thus, the Pens have the edge in this department.
Without Crosby and Malkin, the Pens have been able to hold on, and the Jordan Staal's surge has certainly helped, as has the trade for James Neal. Simply put, though, you can't replace those two super stars, especially when you're going head-to-head with a team that employs Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Simon Gagne, among others.
The matchup at forward is different if the Pens are healthy, but as these teams currently stand, it's hard to top what the Bolts have. The edge goes to Tampa.
The Penguins defense probably doesn't get enough chatter, but the moves they made in the offseason last year really boosted them from a unit that was just good to a unit that's solid all the way around. Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek have been welcome additions to a group that already included Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang, who's had himself a breakout year.
On the flip side, the Tampa defense doesn't have as much depth. Victor Hedman, Randy Jones and Pavel Kubina have all been fine, but it's tough to see them on the same level as the Pens' blueliners. Edge goes to Pittsburgh.
The firepower the Lightning possess on the mad advantage is downright scary, and it's a huge reason why they're ranked No. 6 in the NHL in that department this season. Pittsburgh's power play, meanwhile, is abysmal, although they've obviously been able to win without it.
That could have something to do with their league-leading penalty kill unit, operating at 86.1 percent over the course of the season. It's a hell of a matchup when the Pens are in the box, but considering Tampa's penalty kill is solid as well, the overall edge in the special teams department has to go to the Bolts.
Game 1: Wed., April 13 at 7 p.m.
Game 2: Fri., April 15 at 7 p.m.
Game 3: Mon., April 18 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 4: Wed., April 20 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 5*: Sat., April 23 at TBD
Game 6*: Mon., April 25 at TBD
Game 7*: Wed., April 27 at TBD