PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 27: A general view of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins warming up before the start of play in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on April 27, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Lightning Blog: Raw Charge
All season long we watched an injured Penguins team play well beyond the looks of its roster to not only make the playoffs, but do so with a total of 106 points; good enough for fourth in the conference and the last spot for home-ice advantage in the postseason.
Wednesday night we watched that same team lose a series in which they held a 3-1 series lead heading into Game 5. From there, it was all a matter of the Lightning just playing a much better all around game with the weapons they had to work with. Pittsburgh, in case you didn't notice, registered only four goals in the final three games of the series.
You won't advance with numbers like that. No surprise that the Pens are headed to the offseason after just one round of play.
For the first time since 2007, the Pens have been dealt an early exit in the first round of the playoffs. Even though the final game ended in a 1-0 win for the Lightning, there's no denying the fact that it was still an exciting game. Outcome be damned.
Hard to say who the best player was on the ice for the Penguins. Marc-Andre Fleury, minus that one goal in the second period, stood on his head and played out of mind to keep the Pens alive. Kris Letang was flying into the offensive zone the entire game. You couldn't help but have the feeling that at some point something would break for him. And of course, Max Talbot was alive and well with his physical game, an element that was sorely missed earlier in the series. Even Chris Kunitz - minus his poor breakaway attempt in the second period - played a solid, physical game that at times was the reason behind Pittsburgh's ability to maintain the offensive zone.
And then there's the group of guys who were...I won't say the worst players on the ice, but I will say "not the best." Mainly I'm looking to Alexei Kovalev and Paul Martin. It seemed like Kovy was a turnover machine out there (official summary has him at a game-high four giveaways - to compare, Tampa had a total of two as a team), while Martin just squandered a few opportunities to hit the net with his not-so-quick release on the shot.
Rest assured I'm not making excuses. I may very well just be nit-picking in what was obviously an incredible effort by the Lightning. So while a number of Pens were just put under the microscope, it's only right to do the same for the Lightning. Between Martin St. Louis, Dwayne Roloson, Steve Downie and shot-block machine Eric Brewer, Tampa Bay has a number of weapons to work with as they look to advance into the postseason. Even Steve Stamkos, who was quiet for the better part of the series, improved dramatically as the season wore on. I know as Penguins fans we will naturally look to compare any "young" team to the likes of the 2008 and/or 2009 Penguins, but the Lightning are a more mature team than those two Pittsburgh ones. Sure, you have young guys like Stamkos and Victor Hedman coming into their own, but St. Louis, Vinny Lecavelier, Dwayne Roloson and Ryan Malone are the ones carrying the torch. They've been here before - in some capacity, win or lose, and they know what has to be done to keep the young guys confident and attentive throughout the rest of the run.
All in all - and we'll definitely have some more season-ending content coming up - there is no reason to be disappointed in this Penguins team. From GM Ray Shero and his moves at the trade deadline, to the heart shown by younger guys like Chris Conner, Eric Tangradi and Mark Letestu, this was a memorable season despite the overall outcome. Guys we may not have seen had their shot, padded their resumes and will make a case to crack the full-time roster next season.
Without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, it was hard to fathom that this team could take it all the way. Keep in mind, a die-hard fan had to convince themselves that wasn't the case. Faith - and mind you, not blind faith - left no other alternative but to believe that anything was possible. But we were all thinking it. Even if we weren't so quick to say it, the thought was there.
So kudos to the Lightning and all the fans at Raw Charge. Despite being an obvious Pens fan growing up, I've always admired Steve Yzerman and would not be all that disheartened to see him hoist the Cup as a GM. But the road ahead is a dangerous one, as the Capitals, Flyers and Bruins join them as the four teams still alive in the East.
In addition to keeping my eyes on TonyAndrock's WBS Penguins updates, I'll be watching and cheering for entertaining hockey as we enter the final month of the season.
But most importantly, the countdown to October begins today.