The Pittsburgh Penguins have a two game lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning and are one game from eliminating their Southeastern division foe. No problem for a team that competed for a conference title without their two Art Ross champions, right? Not so much.
Two games later, the Pens and Bolts stand tied at three games apiece, facing a game seven in Pittsburgh.
Martin St. Louis has proven he is clearly the Lightning MVP, and Steven Stamkos even made a brief appearance for game five. Vincent Lecavalier regained his 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs form, and role players like Steve Downie, Ryan Malone, Sean Bergenheim, and Eric Brewer have outplayed Pittsburgh’s role players.
So how will game seven be won?Momentum.
Tampa Bay has outscored the Penguins 21-14 during the series. The Lightning power play is clicking at 32% compared to the Penguins 3%, and penalty killing also favors the Bolts. They have killed 29 Penguin power plays while Pittsburgh has managed a ghastly 68% kill rate—third worst in the playoffs and 18% below their league leading regular season kill rate.
Momentum is on the Lightning’s side, and that means a game seven victory, no?
Momentum was undoubtedly on the side of the Penguins for game five. Pittsburgh just won two games in Tampa’s barn—including a double overtime heart breaker—and were coming home to a rocking Consol Energy Center. What followed was an 8-2 drubbing by the Lightning. In 2009, Pittsburgh reeled off three consecutive wins after falling into an 0-2 hole against Washington before losing in overtime to the Capitals at Mellon arena. Remember that 5-0 blowout the Red Wings dished out in game five of the 2009 Finals? How much did momentum do for Detroit in games six and seven of that series?
Momentum will not lead the Lightning to a series clinching win tomorrow night, but maybe trends will.
There were four game sevens in the 2010 NHL Playoffs. In those games, the road team sported a record of 4-0. If that is not bad enough, Pens fans, teams that won game six were 3-1 in those game sevens. Factor in that Pittsburgh has not won a game seven on home ice since 1995, and there is reason to panic. Certainly, last year’s debacle in game seven against Montreal is not leaving anyone feeling confident.
These trends all point toward Tampa Bay advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since their Stanley Cup winning season in 2004. How reliable are trends though?
In the 2009 Capitals series, Pittsburgh lost game six on home ice but won game seven convincingly in Washington. Last season, after defeating the Red Wings in Detroit, the Phoenix Coyotes dropped game seven at home to lose their first round series.
Trends are meaningless in the NHL. The only true trend of professional hockey is that the NHL playoffs are unpredictable. This unpredictability makes experience the most important factor in the playoffs.
Stanley Cup experience has the Penguins calm and collected facing a game seven. Experience carried these same Penguins to a double-overtime win earlier in the series, and experience helped them win a Stanley Cup just two seasons ago.
Experience, however, did not help the Penguins capitalize on a 3-1 series lead. And experience played no part of a game seven thrashing last year against the Canadiens on home ice.
So much for experience. This is the only answer to who will take the series: The team with more talent and a better strategy. Arguably, the Lightning have the upper hand in both categories.
St. Louis has been the best player on the ice. Lecavalier and Simon Gagne are competing for second best. The Penguins best player? Fourth line, perennial 10-goal-scorer Aaron Asham. Tampa Bay’s Dwayne Roloson has nearly matched Marc-Andre Fleury in net and the Lightning defense has outscored the Pittsburgh defense 4-0. The stars belong to the Bolts.
Dan Bylsma has forced Roloson to handle the puck, but beyond that, has fallen victim to Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 trap. It is hard to fault Bylsma for this, the Lightning employ a trap designed to relieve pressure from their defense and eliminate odd-man opportunities. Considering that Pittsburgh has outshot Tampa Bay 220-156 through the first six games, Bylsma has done a fine job. Unfortunately, these shots are an instance of quantity not quality. Even more unfortunate, there is no better way to play against the 1-3-1 trap. It simply is a brilliant strategy when used correctly.
Taking into account these two factors, the Lighting have the upper hand in this series ending game. There is good news for the Penguins though. One bounce, one save, or one shot changes everything—and that is no secret to a team that has played in three game sevens over the past two playoff seasons.