Who Is Better: Lightning or Penguins?
Thanks to the relatively new playoffs’ format, for the Lightning to reach the Cup final they have to beat the winner of the Metropolitan side of the bracket. Now that the Capitals are the defending champs, and going back-to-back is virtually impossible, the Penguins are the favorite to come out of the Metropolitan this upcoming season. Even though Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are in their early 30s, Pittsburgh has stockpiled way too much talent, and is too well coached, to bow out gracefully and let the Blue Jackets or Devils grab control. So it is worth asking: If these two titans collide who is better, as of this writing: the Lightning or Penguins?
Even in the Lightning fan’s wildest fantasies, the team’s depth up the middle does not compare with the Penguins. When Crosby and Malkin are healthy and rested, no one is better. But that statement does not encompass the entire forward group, only a small subsection. When comparing 1-12, the Lightning can hold their own, and the reasons are multifaceted.
The Lightning have unrealized potential in 22-year-old No. 2 center Brayden Point. They are desperate for Point to anoint himself a superstar this season, a fuzzy label that would be met if he accumulated 80 points and collected 30-plus goals again. During the postseason, coach Jon Cooper experimented with Point replacing Alex Killorn as the bumper in the middle slot on the first power play unit, and if that sticks that may result in 10 extra points alone. While he may not usurp Steven Stamkos’s role as putative No. 1 center, if Point hits those benchmarks, it seems highly likely Cooper will rely on him against Crosby in a tête-à-tête if they square off in the conference finals. At this juncture, Point is more versatile than Stamkos. He is faster and better at manufacturing offense in tight spaces. The Penguins’ other forward stars are also in their 30s. In this matchup, the Lightning are the only team with a player of influence who has not reached his prime, but should imminently.
Also, the Lightning are better on the wings. Nikita Kucherov may be the best winger in the NHL. J.T. Miller can, with the right linemates, notch 30 goals this season. Ondrej Palat is an effective two-way player when healthy. One thing the Penguins do well is to spread out their most effective playmakers on three or even four different lines. Sometimes Phil Kessel and Derick Brassard will have their own lines while Crosby and Malkin steward the first and second. It might be Tyler Johnson’s fate to commandeer a third line with Killorn and another Lightning forward.
Johnson squeaked out 20 goals last season, but he probably shouldn’t be relied on for top-six scoring anymore. Still, the Lightning have invested heavily in veteran depth, and a good way to mask these bad contracts in the long-term is to change the forwards’ roles. That happened to Killorn and Ryan Callahan last season. By recasting Johnson as a third-line center who contributes offense and nullifies the Penguins’s depth scoring, he becomes more valuable.
If Yanni Gourde’s regular season is replicated, and he is indeed a late bloomer with 20-plus goals/60-plus point upside, the Lightning can slide him up and down their lineup and he can cause fits for any Penguins line. Last season, Gourde demonstrated speed, playmaking, finishing ability around the net, and ranked fourth on the Lightning in goals. If he craters and last year’s campaign proves to be an aberration, there will be a yawning gap between the machers (Kucherov, Point, Stamkos) and the dependents. Gourde was the bridge between the two worlds. If Gourde’s play slips, the Penguins have the dominant advantage at forward.
One of the most compelling narratives of this matchup would be how the Lightning’s shooters fare versus Penguins goaltender Matt Murray. The book on Murray being beatable on his glove side was publicized well before last season’s playoffs. But there is a reason why it took so long for that weakness to be exploited to the point of the Penguins losing. The Penguins have the puck a lot. They defend shooting and passing lanes really well, and push players into the non-scoring areas. It took the Capitals – who have the best shooting team in the league while also possessing a band of skaters with the speed and puck-handling to carry the puck into areas where they could beat Murray – to make it an issue for Pittsburgh. Could the Lightning do that?
Kucherov is one of the most deadly shooters in the NHL. And Stamkos has the reputation of being one of the greatest sharpshooters of this century. Yet, both were ham-fisted in scoring areas against the Capitals last postseason when they were depended on to use their gifts to beat goaltender Braden Holtby. This point is paramount because the Lightning struggled to sustain consistent offense versus the Capitals, and they desperately needed their shooters to rise to the moment and snap one by the Holtby facade. But Kucherov and Stamkos failed, and after those two, the shooting gets a little bit more worrisome.
Point has a good shot, but not great. Miller has a dart, but is unreliable. Victor Hedman has a rocket if he can put it on net. Johnson, Palat, and Gourde score more off their releases than from power and accuracy. Murray is only vulnerable if the Lightning have the acumen to gain separation and put themselves in shooting areas where they can seize on his flawed glove hand.
On defense, the Penguins certainly have a type. And by type I don’t mean aspiring actress or investment banker. The Penguins pursuit of Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, Ron Hainsey, Matt Hunwick, Mark Streit, Jamie Oleksiak, and now Jack Johnson, all fit a mold. They are all mobile but came to Pittsburgh with baggage. The Penguins’ defensemen are cocooned in a system that accentuates their speed and vision and shields flaws such as poor decision-making and defensive apathy.
By re-inking Oleksiak and signing Johnson, the Penguins possess a suite of defensemen who not only can skate well, but also generate offense with their mobility. The Penguins’ desire to equip their defensive group with a host of mobile creators should be concerning for the Lightning. Hedman is the league’s best defenseman because he is an unassailably skilled playmaker and defensive disruptor who is the bedrock of the Lightning’s defense. Mikhail Sergachev brays with potential. But after that, the offense and mobility dip. Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman can move the puck and feign a threat to score. Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn pose no concerns to opponents—and against the speed of the Penguins’ forwards and defensemen, they could be eaten alive. That said, Girardi and Coburn both admirably staved off embarrassment against Washington, and played better than expected. But this should be an object lesson for Tampa Bay as Girardi and Coburn come off the books soon: The future is mobile defensemen, and good ones can be seized for a bargain price. Choose more wisely going forward.
Ultimately, the postseason is about survival. The Capitals finally beat the Penguins in the last postseason because they could beat them in any type of game. In Game 5, the Capitals won in a shootout, defeating the Penguins 6-3 after trailing 3-2 through two periods. The Capitals had a repository of forwards who they could depend on to lift them to victory. In Game 6, the style of play sharply reversed. The Capitals eked out a 2-1 OT win, and the contest had all the earmarks of a conservative, tight-checking playoff game where both teams did not want to make the fatal mistake. The Lightning can surely win the latter type of contest against the Penguins, but how Point matures, what Gourde offers this season, and how the Tier II forwards are distributed throughout their lineup will dictate whether they can outscore a high-powered, disciplined Penguins squad.
Style of play is inevitably where the goaltender comparison comes in. Andrei Vasilevskiy can be the Lightning trump card against the Penguins. Vasilevskiy possesses the capacity to make marvelous saves and steal a game. But as discussed in my previous article, his postseason numbers were pockmarked with inconsistency. He struggled on low-danger shots, and once the Lightning fell behind, his focus wavered.
The sad truth is that the Lightning likely need Vasilevskiy’s play to be outstanding more than the Penguins need Murray to steal the show. The Lightning will surely struggle to contain a dynamic Penguins offense, and how much they can score on the Penguins will heavily depend on their sharpshooters seizing on their looks and their tier-two forwards submitting meaningful contributions.
This is an early forecast of a sizzling playoff matchup with high stakes. Rome wasn’t built in a day. And certainly, a team’s fate is not determined in mid-August. There will be personnel changes, and a lot of data will be recorded between now and May. The Lightning can be the author of a triumphant destiny. The 2018-19 season can be the year the Lightning finally kick down the door and vanquish their nettlesome adversaries. But the East is only getting tougher, and past ghosts still linger, ready to haunt Tampa Bay anew.