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It is more than a little hard to get your head around this first playoff meeting between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning.
First, there is the absence (or presumed absence) of Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby. Although he's been skating for a month or so, Crosby remains several steps away from being game-ready as he tries to recover from a concussion that has sidelined him since Jan. 6. No one exactly knows what that means in terms of the playoff calendar, but it seems he is an unlikely participant in the first round.
That means the balance of power, at least offensively, swings dramatically in favor of Tampa Bay. And the Penguins will continue to do what they've been doing most of the second half without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, among others: grind out close games with superlative defense and great goaltending.
The Lightning, meanwhile, will have to avoid the "just happy to be here" mentality as they return to the postseason for the first time in four seasons under rookie coach Guy Boucher. Neither team lacks for experience, so jitters shouldn't be an issue, but expect a tense, close series that could go the distance.
1. The elephant in the room: We remember covering a 2006 playoff series between Ottawa and Buffalo when Ottawa netminder Dominik Hasek was trying to rebound from an injury sustained at the 2006 Torino Olympics. It was the story of the series even though he never played a minute.
What of the Crosby factor, then? The Pens are used to playing without him, but they will be bombarded with questions of what it means to play without their leader and will have to resist the temptation to look for help, especially if they get down early in the series.
"I don't think it's been a factor at all," Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero told ESPN.com on Sunday. "I don't think it's been the focus of our team."
Conversely, the Lightning have to get over the mental hump of somehow expecting less from the Pens because there is no Crosby or Malkin in the lineup. They know they have an advantage, but that can't morph into some sort of complacency.
"The preparation remains the same," Tampa forward Dominic Moore told us Sunday. "They're a team that played us well during the regular season."
2. Stamkos arrives: It is a shame Crosby's status for this series will likely deny a clash between last season's co-Rocket Richard Trophy winners. Steven Stamkos finished second in goal scoring this season after his production dropped off precipitously down the stretch (he scored just twice in his past 13 games). Will that have a bearing on his play in his first career playoff series? The decline led Boucher to go away from his normal No. 1 trio of Stamkos, Hart Trophy hopeful Martin St. Louis and Steve Downie to a line of Stamkos, Downie and Ryan Malone, who just came back from injury.
3. The old man between the pipes (and that other guy): When last we saw Dwayne Roloson in the playoffs, he was being helped off the ice during Game 1 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals after leading Edmonton on a miraculous postseason run. A trade-deadline pickup that season for Edmonton, Roloson is hoping to reprise that white knight role this spring after being acquired from the New York Islanders on Jan. 1.
At the time, the Lightning's goaltending situation was a mess and rookie GM Steve Yzerman was proactive in bringing in the 41-year-old veteran. Roloson won eight of his first 11 starts and rebounded from a soft spot in March to win four of his final five games. He did not give up more than two goals in any of those final wins.
"Age is pretty much a non-factor with Rollie unless you're talking about its benefits," Moore said. As for preparation, Moore said Roloson's attention to detail is "incredibly impressive."
If Roloson can match Marc-Andre Fleury in terms of quality starts, the Lightning will advance. The other interesting goaltending note: backup Mike Smith has played well down the stretch since being recalled. He was 3-0-0 in his past three starts, allowing just four goals over that period.
4. A sort of homecoming: Another element of this series that seems to favor the Lightning is the return of Malone. These will be emotional days for Malone, a Pittsburgh native who played a key role in the Penguins' march to the 2008 Stanley Cup finals. The rugged winger signed a big contract with Tampa Bay that offseason and missed the Pens' 2009 Cup win. No doubt there were some feelings of regret, especially given the chaos that surrounded the Lightning leading up to this season. But now, Malone has a chance to make good on his decision with a big series against his old teammates.
A member of the U.S. silver medal-winning team from the 2010 Olympics, Malone just returned from injury but scored in three straight games. Throw in the recent return of skilled agitator Downie, and all of a sudden the Lightning's sand quotient goes up exponentially. It will be important against a Pittsburgh team that relies on grinding down opponents.
5. Defense versus offense: They say defense wins championships, but at some point, someone has to find the back of the net regardless, no?
And therein lies the dilemma for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have established themselves as one of the most difficult teams to play against, especially in the absence of Crosby and Malkin. The Penguins rank third in the league in winning percentage in one-goal games, seventh in goals against per game and first on the penalty kill.
But (and you knew this was coming didn't you?) the Penguins are middle-of-the-pack in goals scored and tied for 26th in third-period scoring. That's a problem. The squad has relied on scoring by committee over the past few months, and Jordan Staal, Chris Kunitz, Tyler Kennedy and James Neal are going to have to continue to step up. It's a tall order.
"We're going to need some more timely scoring in the playoffs to win and move on," Shero said. "It's going to be a tough test."
• Dan Bylsma versus Guy Boucher: This will be an interesting battle of wills between two young coaches who have enjoyed a surprising amount of success. Bylsma won a Cup just months after being promoted from the AHL to replace Michel Therrien in February 2009. The Pens were bounced in the second round by Montreal last season, but Bylsma earned his keep this season after getting Fleury on track and keeping his team focused in the absence of Crosby and Malkin. It will be a shock if he's not a finalist for the Jack Adams Award.
Meanwhile, Boucher justified Yzerman's trust after the GM made Boucher the youngest head coach in the league this past offseason. Boucher got the Lightning off to a terrific start despite introducing a new system and worked through goaltending woes before Roloson's arrival. Boucher managed to guide his team through a rough patch in March when it won just two of 12 games. Will he have some nerves as this series unfolds? Can Bylsma get the better of Boucher, especially when it comes to shutting down St. Louis and Stamkos?
• Pittsburgh: There seems to be no middle ground for Fleury. He is either unbeatable, as he was for much of the second half, or a mess. The Pens can withstand one or two messy outings, but any more than that will end this series in a hurry. Fleury was named team MVP for the regular season and set a franchise record with his third straight season of 35 or more wins. Now he needs to channel himself circa May/June 2009.
• Tampa Bay: In some ways an afterthought given the prominence of Stamkos, St. Louis and Roloson, Tampa Bay captain Vincent Lecavalier remains a key piece for the Lightning. He quietly scored five times in his past four games, including two game winners, playing mostly with a revamped French Connection line that includes St. Louis and Simon Gagne. Lecavalier's production on a sixth-ranked power play (Pittsburgh is ranked 25th) could be crucial. More importantly, though, his production at even strength will help tax a Pittsburgh defense that must keep it close.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• This was more than a little excruciating to settle on. Offensive depth suggests the Lightning will outlast the Pens, but we still see the Pens somehow advancing to at least the second round for the fourth straight postseason. Penguins in seven.