Talk about a whacky year: between the Pittsburgh Penguins losing Jordan Staal for one-half of the year and Sidney Crosby for the other, and the Tampa Bay Lightning rolling, fading, all the while giving up too many goals, we end up with a matchup of teams that are hard to analyze. That being said, a glance at the numbers can at least give us a leg to stand on when looking at the series.
It's pretty difficult to read what the Penguins can and cannot do without Sidney Crosby, but it's fair to say that to lose a player having the kind of year Crosby was having (at the time of his injury, he was on-pace for 64-goal, 132-point campaign) could potentially be devastating. Interestingly enough, the loss of Crosby almost exactly coincided with the return of Jordan Staal, so we have the luxury of comparing the team's performance via Crosby and Staal Corsi data. Observe:
|SF On/60||SA On/60||SF Off/60||SA Off/60|
In other words, you can see that defensively, the Pens basically held the status quo; the big loss was offensively, and as you can see here...
|GF On/60||GA On/60||GF Off/60||GA Off/60|
...that offensive loss was exacerbated by the fact that Crosby helped create big offensively-opportune minutes (often out of not-so-opportune situations; his zone starts were well below 50%) and produced goals out of nearly 20% of his shots. This means that overall Corsi data for the Pens is going to be a bit misleading when looking at their opening-round matchup; Crosby will probably not be returning in time for the first round, and might be out longer. What I will say is that the Pens are still playing well defensively, and Marc-Andre Fleury is holding up his end of the deal by stopping the puck when they need him to stop the puck. The net result has been a 23-13-5 record without Crosby, after a 26-12-3 record with him, and I think that there is little question that this is still a solid playoff team sans their top scorer.
At the Tampa end, I did an article awhile ago looking at the Lightning in regards to the acquisition of Dwayne Roloson. I noted that Roloson was moving to a team with an extraordinarily good shot differential, a fact that has held throughout the year. Interestingly, the differential doesn't necessarily come from the places you might think; Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, and Vincent Lecavalier are getting postive Corsi numbers, by about 2 shots per 60 in 5-on-5 action, but the real McCoy has been players like Sean Bergenheim, Ryan Malone, Teddy Purcell, and Dominic Moore just slaughtering weaker competition. Bergenheim, in 5-on-5 play, is helping generate 9 more shots per 60 minutes, good for a Corsi Rel of 12 (Stamkos, in comparison, is 0.8, and St. Louis -2.2). Malone, Purcell, and Moore are helping their linemates outshoot the opposition anywhere from 4 to 8 shots per 60 minutes, with an average Corsi Rel of about 7. The tradeoff has been extraordinarily tough minutes for Nate Thompson, Dana Tyrell, and Adam Hall, though they've also managed to hold opponents' shooting down. The numbers are no less whacky for the defensemen, suffice to say that whatever Guy Boucher has done this year has certainly produced some weird outcomes. The major difference between the beginning of the year and the present is that Roloson has brought a bit better goaltending to Tampa, though his 92.5 even-strength SV% should be tempered with the knowledge that he's pogo-sticked between shutouts and atrocious games, and his shorthanded SV% is a miserly 78.4 (8 goals allowed on 37 shots).
In terms of the matchup, we essentially have a steady Penguins squad up against a volatile Lightning one. My gut tells me that Stamkos had a dry spell but has possibly snapped it and will now go on a run; it also tells me that Roloson has had a really good stretch and is due for a few really bad games. But I don't listen to my gut, and the safer bet is always going to be the less-volatile team that reduces opponents' opportunities. The safest bet is to not bet on the playoffs at all, because it's the Tournament of Small Sample Sizes, but I digress. The Lightning will rock the casbah a couple of games, crap the bed in a couple more, and slow-and-steady will win the race. Penguins in 6 games.