Penguins, Lightning strike in first round

The Pittsburgh Penguins overcame a rash of serious injuries this season to earn home-ice advantage in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Tampa Bay returns to the post-season for the first time in four years. After the two teams tied the regular season series 2-2, this playoff matchup may go the full seven games.

(4) Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins (49-25-8) finished fourth in the Eastern Conference this season despite missing their two best players for the second half of the year.

Sidney Crosby has been sidelined since Jan. 6 with a concussion and Evgeni Malkin isn’t expected to return anytime soon after tearing the MCL and ACL in his right knee against the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 4.

Crosby has skated for the past few weeks but has not been cleared for contact drills and his status remains doubtful. Although the 23-year-old captain missed half the season, Crosby still led the Penguins in scoring with 66 points in 41 games.

Centre Jordan Staal and defenceman Kris Letang will be heavily relied upon if the Penguins are to improve on last season’s second-round defeat by the Montreal Canadiens in seven games.

Letang played in all 82 games this season and finished second on the Pens with 50 points. The team allowed only 2.40 goals per game, good enough for seventh-best in the NHL.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury enters the post-season looking to backstop his team to a second Stanley Cup in three years. He won 36 games this season and posted a 2.32 goals-against average.

(5) Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay (46-25-11) returns to the playoffs with hopes that rookie coach Guy Boucher can guide the franchise to its second Stanley Cup and first since 2004.

Lightning youngsters Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman will make their NHL post-season debuts.

In his third professional season, the 21-year-old Stamkos scored 45 goals and 91 points this season after winning the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as a sophomore in 2009-10 with 51 goals.

Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis won the Stanley Cup in 2004 with Tampa and along with 41-year-old goaltender Dwayne Roloson and forward Simon Gagne, the Lightning have plenty of post-season experience to draw from.

Roloson looks to earn his first Stanley Cup ring after losing in game seven of the 2006 final while playing for the Edmonton Oilers.

The 31-year-old Gagne has played in 90 playoff games including a trip to the final last year with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Keys to the Series

The coaching duel between Dan Bylsma and Boucher is the series most intriguing matchup.

Bylsma guided the Pens to fourth place despite major injuries to Crosby and Malkin and posted their second-best regular season points total in franchise history.

Under Boucher, the Lightning equalled the franchise record with 46 wins. Whichever coach gets the most out of their offensive weapons should guide their team into the second round.

Schedule

Wednesday, April 13: Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m., CBC

Friday, April 15: Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m., CBC

Monday, April 18: Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay, 7:30 p.m., CBC

Wednesday, April 20: Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay, 7 p.m., CBC

x-Saturday, April 23: Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh, TBA, CBC

x-Monday, April 25: Pittsburgh at Tampa Bay, TBA, CBC

x-Wednesday, April 27: Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh, TBA, CBC

x – if necessary

Predictions

Michael Gomes: Lightning in six
Pete Stewart: Pittsburgh in seven
Michael Woodrow: Lightning in six