NHL Round Three Playoffs Preview: Tampa Bay vs. Pittsburgh

It’s hard to believe but the Stanley Cup feels within reach as Round Three of the Stanley Cup Finals begins tomorrow night in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. The two teams that will face off have a very similar style of play, they are both fast and highly offensively teams that know how to break away and score. So the question will be, who has the upper hand, the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Tampa Bay Lightning?

The Tampa Bay Lightning so far has had what may seem like an easier road to get to the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, but no matter how easy it might look repeating an appearance in the Stanley Cup final, is another story. They will be hoping to repeat last year’s successful experience, but to this time actually raise the cup. But before they start dreaming of that they will have to win an opening game when they visit the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday’s series opener.

They will have to remember that they are the defending Eastern Conference champions and that they have been to this show before. maybe because they lost so badly to the Chicago Blackhawks last year, this year the Lightning are finding themselves listed at plus-150 betting underdogs, that means if you bet $100 you’ll win $150 for Game 1 at most sportsbooks which are up kept by Odds Shark.

But on the bigger picture Tampa Bay is listed at plus-160 to win the series compared to minus-180, so you have to bet $180 to win $100 for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are being statistically favored to win the Stanley Cup after they blew up the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals in 11 fantastic games.

The Lightning were great too, since they needed only 10 games to knock out the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders despite not having their All-Star forward Steven Stamkos, who has been out due to surgery to treat a blood clot in his arm. Stamkos has had to be out five weeks but it could even be up to three months, though there are reports circling among hockey experts that he will return to the ice sooner than expected.

The Penguins have been much luckier with injuries than most other team in the NHL this year, because they have had other players to step up when needed, especially during their current playoff run. And those players whether it be Phil Kessel or Carl Hagelin, scored goals that got the Pens to the next level.

Pittsburgh winger, Kessel has turned out to be a great asset, since first looking like a bust after coming to Pittsburgh in a blockbuster trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs last offseason. He’s come alive down the stretch while Evgeni Malkin was out with an upper-body injury. Many local media experts are calling him the difference-maker in the postseason with a team-high 12 points on five goals and seven assists. So if the Pens win the Cup this year, that trade will have been monumental in Pittsburgh recent hockey history.

The brightest spot for the Pens however, has been goaltending. It has been a pleasant surprise since the Pens starting netminder Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a concussion late in the regular season. With a hole in net and Fleury being relegated to backup duty, rookie goalie Matt Murray emerged between the pipes as the star starter and he has been the difference in the first and second round series. Murray is 7-2 in the playoffs with a .935 save percentage after stopping 272 of 291 shots. He’s been a wall.

Tampa Bay has an amazing counterpart called Ben Bishop, his numbers are even better, going 8-2 with a .938 save percentage (270-for-288). And he has not really been seriously tested, until now that is.

In the head to head series, the Lightning won all three regular-season matchups against Pittsburgh, but then again they had never face Murray. That unknown will surely have an impact on the chances the Lightning have in winning Game 1 while they figure him out. The odds look good though, that with the likes of Jonathan Drouin for Tampa Bay, they won’t miss Stamkos that much and will figure out Murray quicker than the Caps did, before it’s too late.

Our Pick: Wake up call for the Pens. Lightning over Penguins, 4-2