The first name that came to mind to give us that insight was Erik Erlendsson. Erik spent 16 years covering the Lightning for the Tampa Tribune until the paper folded on May 3rd of this year. He's now a gun-for-hire freelance journalist in search of a full-time gig, and will be contributing to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review for the Eastern Conference finals. Someone should definitely hire Erik, and should do it soon.
I threw five questions at Erik that can/will give Penguins fans some expectations for the series from the Tampa side, and he was kind of enough to give me some great perspective and answers. So, here we are:
1. Do you find it as remarkable as I do that Tampa made their way to the Eastern Conference Final for the second year in a row? The reason I find it remarkable is due to the fact that they are playing without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. I picked against Tampa Bay in the first round! What a poor decision, in hindsight.
EE: It's easy to see why many might be surprised that Tampa Bay is in this spot despite the loss of Stamkos and Stralman. But this is a deep team that gets contributions up and down the lineup. The experience many of the players gained in the postseason last season has been a huge benefit this season. And when you have a goaltender such as Ben Bishop manning the nets, there's always a chance.
This all makes sense, and are definitely things I should have considered before ya know, picking the Detroit Red Wings in FIVE GAMES. Yikes. Their depth kind of reminds me of the Penguins, albeit much younger in many parts.
2. How can the Penguins go about stopping (read as: attempting to slow down) the Triplets? Those kids are just special and I’m gonna enjoy watching them while praying they don’t destroy Pittsburgh
EE: Well, that line has not really been as effective this season as they were last season. Injuries forced them apart for a good portion of the first half of the season, but even after all were healthy, the trio has not been together for long stretches. While they started the second round series together, it was Alex Killorn playing with Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov that destroyed the Red Wings and the opening round and proved a big factor toward the back end of the series against the Islanders.
Kucherov is just an absolute monster. At this point, through two series', he has already scored 9 goals in just 10 playoff games. He reminds of Alex Ovechkin in a way, in that he kinda will be lurking, and by the time you realize you left him uncovered, it's too late and the puck is in the back of the net.
3. In your opinion, what do you think we are we looking at in terms of possibilities of Stralman or Stamkos returning in this series?
EE: I'd fully expect Stralman to be back at some point in this series. Game 1 marks the seven-week mark since Stralman suffered the fractured fibula, and the fact he's back skating with the full squad tells you he's on the verge of a return. With two days off before Game 2, I'd be surprised if he's not back by then.As far as Stamkos, it's the great unknown. He can't do anything as long as he's on blood thinners and there is no set timetable to be taken off. He's skating and practicing, but not allowed any sort of contact. Once he's cleared, it could be a quick return, but nobody knows when or if that will come.
The answer about Stralman is not what I wanted to hear (for Pittsburgh.) I wish him the best and he's a remarkable player to watch, but the storyline for Pittsburgh is written much easier if he isn't in the lineup. Victor Hedman is enough of a beast on his own, and Tampa adding reinforcements in Stralman at this point make them even deeper.
4. How well equipped do you think the Lightning are, in terms of depth, to square up against the Penguins depth? We saw that depth slowly wear down a deep Capitals team. Mike Sullivan was able to deploy it’s "third line" of Carl Hagelin, Phil Kessel, and Nick Bonino, and utilize matchups against middle and bottom six forwards from Washington, and quite frankly, be able to win that matchup nearly every team. Can the Lightning do a better job matching depth?
EE: Tampa Bay has survived the injuries thus far because of their depth up front. The have two legitimate top-flight scoring lines and the emergence of Jonathan Drouin has been a big boost in the postseason. The third line of Cedric Paquette-Brian Boyle-Ryan Callahan is a physical, pesky line Tampa Bay uses in more of a checking role, and though it lacks the scoring punch of the Pens third-line, they can be disruptive and is capable of chipping in offensively. The bigger concern on the matchup front will be the Lightning's third pairing on defense, particularly if Stralman is not quite ready to return.
I was thinking the same. For Mike Sullivan, I feel like the big matchup choices are going to be which line he wants to try and get out against Tampa's third-pairing. Jon Cooper might help make that decision for HCMS when we see who he tries to match Victor Hedman against. The line changes and matchup battles of the playoffs over a series are so fascinating.
5. What do you think is going to be the primary key for the Lightning if they are to win this series and get back to the Stanley Cup Final?
EE: Ben Bishop has to be a difference maker. Like that's any sort of expert analysis, asking a goaltender to be the difference for a team, but Bishop has been the mistake eraser for Tampa Bay and will need to be so once again as the Penguins have so many scoring threats. The Lightning also need to make sure they don't give Pittsburgh too many power play chances. Tampa Bay has been somewhat of an undisciplined team in the postseason, but as good as the penalty kill has been, the Penguins are more deadly on the man advantage than either the Red Wings and the Islanders.
Goalies, man. We're looking at the same thing with Matt Murray in net. He just keeps....winning. And he's making it look easy most of the time. It seems like Pittsburgh has finally come back to Earth and regressed to the mean at 5v4, the Rangers series and the beginning of the Capitals series were painful to watch when the Penguins were on the power play. Let's hope that can continue.
6. Bonus Question: If you were on death row and had to choose a final meal, what would you choose?
EE: Why am I on death row to begin with? That might affect my menu choice, no? . . . . No? Okay, then let's say a nice plate of Penne Carbonara with a nice touch of red pepper flakes for a hint of spice, accompanied with a nice tall glass of Rickards White (Guess I'd have to be in Canada for that one, do they even have a death row up there?) followed by a nice piece chocolate mousse and finished up with a nice creme brulee topped with blackberries. (Don't judge, it's my last meal, I'm entitled to two desserts!!!!!!)
Alright, so anyone who reads these type of Q&A's that I do, they know that this is always my final question. Yes, it's strange, but it's fun to see people's reactions and responses. And I have to say, Erik's is outstanding. Detailed and descript. I love it. He's got good taste, as we can see. I for one, will never judge ANYONE for selecting two desserts at any meal, let alone a final meal.
I look forward to seeing everyone's thoughts on what his perspective from Tampa Bay has been.