Series tied 0-0
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been the hottest team in the NHL over the past two months and hope to pass another test when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Penguins went 14-2-0 to end the regular season before knocking off the New York Rangers and the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the postseason.
“I think if you look at us, we kept improving as the year went on,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang told reporters. “I think we have to look at what we were capable of doing in the last few weeks and keep building on that.” The Penguins have made the conference final for the first time since 2013 with balanced scoring, improved defense and rookie goalie Matt Murray’s solid play that has kept veteran Marc-Andre Fleury on the bench. Pittsburgh must find a way to contain a lethal Tampa Bay offense that is led by Nikita Kucherov (nine goals, 12 points) and Tyler Johnson (13 points) while the Lightning’s top-pair defenseman Anton Stralman (broken fibula) and captain Steven Stamkos (blood clot) could return at some point in the series. Tampa Bay beat the Penguins three straight in the regular season, but were outshot 109-74 combined and Lightning coach Jon Cooper told reporters, “the way they were playing then to where they’re playing now is completely different.”
TV: 8 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network, CBC, TVAS
Lightning – Ben Bishop (W/L: 8-2, GAA: 1.89, SAVE %: .928)
Penguins – Matthew Murray (W/L: 7-2, GAA: 2.05, SAVE %: .932)
ABOUT THE LIGHTNING (54-33-5, 37-43 O/U): Stralman has gone through full practice the last few days, but told reporters the leg “is not perfect,” and versatile forward J.T. Brown (upper body) could be back in the lineup after missing almost a month. While Kucherov, Johnson, Alex Killorn (nine points) and the emergence of Jonathan Drouin (eight assists) have played a big part, 6-foot-6 defenseman Victor Hedman was the key figure in the second-round series victory over the New York Islanders – holding captain John Tavares without a point the last four games and recording eight. “When the big boy’s rolling, we feed off that,” Cooper told reporters.
ABOUT THE PENGUINS (56-28-9, 41-35 O/U): It will be difficult for Cooper to pick which line Hedman will go up against the most because Pittsburgh’s four forward units have all produced in the postseason with three of them represented among the top four scorers. Sidney Crosby (10 points) and Evgeni Malkin (nine) each center a line while the trio of Phil Kessel (five goals, 12 points), Nick Bonino (eight assists) and Carl Hagelin may be their best in the playoffs thus far. “We really like how that line has come together,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told reporters of Bonino’s unit. “It allows us to kind of spread out talent a bit and create more balance.”
* Lightning are 4-0 in their last 4 vs. a team with a winning record.
* Penguins are 17-4 in their last 21 vs. a team with a winning record.
* Under is 9-2-1 in Lightning last 12 games playing on 3 or more days rest.
* Over is 10-1 in the last 11 meetings in Pittsburgh.
* Lightning are 1-7 in the last 8 meetings in Pittsburgh.
COVERS CONSENSUS: The public is hammering the Pittsburgh Penguins at a rate of 71 percent and the over is picking up a very sturdy 79 percent of the Covers wagers. View full consensus data here.
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