Now three days removed from the NHL All-Star break, the Lightning (37-10-2; 1st in Atlantic) head to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins (26-17-6; 4th in Metropolitan). It’s Tampa Bay’s first game after the break and Pittsburgh’s second, following their 6-3 loss to the Devils on Monday.
This game is a battle between two franchises that have had a ton of success over the last few seasons. Other than being a rematch of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, at least one of these teams has been in the conference final in each of the last four years, and eight of the last 11 overall. This year, at least one of these teams looks poised to return, as the Lightning have 13 more points than the next-best team in the East, the New York Islanders.
To no surprise, the Lightning are considered the favorite to win this game, albeit a slight one on the road. The line is Tampa Bay -115.
Cream of the Crop
There are no perfect teams in the NHL or any sport for that matter. But the Lightning have built a team that is a clear Cup-favorite, and whose performance this season has surpassed expectations.
Through about 50 games, Tampa Bay leads the league the goals per game (4.00), goal differential (1.14), and power play percentage (29.5%). Defensively, they rank fifth in penalty kill percentage (83.5%), and are a top-10 team with 2.86 goals allowed per game.
Leading the charge is right wing Nikita Kucherov, who leads the NHL with 78 points. The 25-year old has found success on the first line this season with center Brayden Point (65 points) and left wing Tyler Johnson (34 points). But the Lightning’s league-leading offense is a result of their extraordinary depth. They have 10 players with 20 or more points, including All-Star forward Steven Stamkos and former-Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman. Six of them, including the two players just mentioned, have 30 points or more.
In net, the Lightning boast one of the league’s best goaltenders in Andrei Vasilevskiy. The 24-year old netminder is 20-6-2 with a 2.50 GAA. He has 20 wins despite only playing in 28 games, after a broken foot early in the season forced him to miss several weeks.
Up and Down
The Penguins have been a model of consistency for the last several years, which include back-to-back Stanley Cup victories in 2016 and 2017. However this year, Pittsburgh finds themselves fighting for a playoff spot.
Despite a rocky season in terms of their standing, the Penguins’ numbers are actually decent. They’re fifth in average goals per game (3.49), sixth in power play percentage (24.8%), and sixth in penalty kill percentage (83.3%). Despite their 3.06 goals allowed average being just 18th, their overall goal differential is still top-10 in the league.
Once again, Pittsburgh is led by their veteran core. All-Star MVP Sidney Crosby leads the team with 57 points, followed by Evgeni Malkin (53 points) and Phil Kessel (53 points). Winger Jake Guentzel has scored a team-leading 24 goals while skating on the first line with Crosby. Defensively, Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin have had great chemistry this year as the top pairing. The group behind them is much weaker, making things a little difficult for Matt Murray, who has struggled to the tune of a 3.00 GAA.
Earlier this week, Pittsburgh traded defenseman Jamie Oleksiak to the Stars in exchange for a fourth round pick. Ironically, Oleksiak started with Dallas before being traded to the Penguins last year for the same fourth round draft pick Pittsburgh is now re-acquiring. That move was one of several trades the Penguins have made this year to improve their playoff chances, as they have added Tanner Pearson and Marcus Pettersson while trading away Daniel Sprong and Carl Hagelin.
If the Penguins were playing better in recent games, I would feel comfortable enough to take them in a home upset. However, they have lost four of their last five, while giving up at least five goals in each of the losses. This included a 6-3 loss at home to the Devils on Monday, one of the league’s worst teams.
The Lightning have the top offense in hockey, they’re well-rested, and ready to roll. Give me the Lightning -115 to win this game on the road.