Olympic quality talent. A Stanley Cup. Five straight years of top four finishes in the Eastern Conference. These are the Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ve been in the stratosphere of the NHL since the 2009 season and this weekend they’re getting a little tan down in Florida.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, if not the polar opposite of the Pens, are certainly just about as far removed from them as a team can get. With only one playoff appearance in the last six years, the Bolts are certainly not what I’d call ‘consistent’. However, off to a 3-1-0 start, Tampa Bay may actually have a little fire this year.
So Saturday in what’s almost certain to be an offensive slobber knocker, these two teams will square off. Are the Pens still not over a 2011 playoff loss to Tampa? Can Steven Stamkos keep up his hot streak? And will the NHL media stop talking about Steve Yzerman’s opinions on fighting? Well, some of those questions will be answered Saturday!
Vinny out, Val in.
Tampa Bay’s GM Steve Yzerman made a significant move in the offseason by using a compliance buyout on captain and franchise player, Vincent Lecavalier. The buyout was seen primarily as cap related, though getting rid of the captain does signal a bit of a changing of the guard, so to speak.
However, the team has both leadership and scoring from their new captain, the ageless Martin St. Louis. Returning for his thirteenth year of duty, St Louis and line mate Steve Stamkos were one-two in NHL scoring last year.
Additionally, the team picked up ex-Red Wing Valtteri Filppula in the offseason. Filppula is a season removed from a 65 point campaign and will fill Lecavalier’s old number two center spot.
A few Pens on the Mend
Injuries are a reality in collision sports like hockey, a reality with which the Penguins are all too familiar. In the last three seasons the Pens have begun to rely on secondary scoring more and more as stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have missed over 170 games combined.
The main source of that scoring? James Neal. With 117 points over his last 120 games, Neal has become a vital cog in the Pittsburgh machine. However, Neal went down last week against New Jersey and will not be in the lineup on Saturday night.
Additionally, Pittsburgh’s star defenseman Kris Letang is sidelined with the dreaded ‘lower body injury.’ Letang, who narrowly missed out on the Norris Trophy last year (best defenseman), should be back soon, but will be out this weekend.
Of course, I have to mention backup turned last year’s playoff starting goalie, Tomas Vokoun. He discovered a blood clot in his leg two weeks ago and is apparently lucky to alive. Not surprisingly, Vokoun will be recovering for a long time.
Can Lightning Strike for a Bolts Upset?
At 3-0-0 Pittsburgh is off their best start in eighteen years. Thus far the Pens’ attack has been aided by contributions from guys like Brandon Sutter, rookie Olli Maata, and Jussi Jokinen (playing the dregs of the East like Carolina and Buffalo didn’t hurt either). But how long can Pittsburgh sustain without guys like Neal and Letang in the lineup? Sid the Kid and Geno Malkin are still available, but the Pens’ depth is definitely in question.
Of course, depth has been the question in Tampa Bay for almost a decade. But the Lightning’s depth issue seems to be nearing its end. They’ve restocked their minor league system, which resulted in their Norfolk AHL franchise’s Calder Cup victory two years ago. Tampa also has a new -more offensively geared- coaching strategy, and a relatively new goaltender in Ben Bishop.
Tampa’s 3-1-0 start has been one of the more surprising story lines of the season. But should you be buying? The first two weeks of the season are generally not a great representation of the rest of the season. Of course the Lightning aren’t going to win 60 games this year and they’re probably not going to make the playoffs.
The line opened at Tampa +120, which piqued my interest, and apparently others’ as well, as the line has already moved to +113.
My final deciding factor was the inconsistent play of the Pens’ net minder Marc Andre Fleury. The flower was terrible in last year’s playoffs and with Vokoun out, the backup is Jeff Zatkoff. Who’s that? Exactly. Buy Tampa at +120 or better.