TAMPA -- Midway through the NHL season, predictions of an Eastern Conference finals matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning might have been followed with a few raised eyebrows.
On Dec. 31 both teams sat with 40 points and outside the playoff picture. The Penguins were fifth in the Metropolitan Division standings while the Lightning were sixth in the Atlantic Division. Just making the playoffs seemed a difficult task.
But after the calendar switched, both teams flipped their fortunes around.
The Penguins early-season misfortunes forced a coaching change after Mike Johnston was let go and Mike Sullivan was promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Dec. 12. It took some time for Sullivan to have an impact on turning Pittsburgh's season around, but the one-time Lightning assistant coach guided his team to a 26-9-4 record from Jan. 9 to finish second in the division.
"There was something about this team when you looked at the start of the season that wasn't right,'' Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. "With the kind of players we had we were not playing the style of game that was going to make us successful. So as time went on it became apparent to me that we had to change that style. ... When Mike Sullivan came in there was an immediate connection between the players and the coach and his philosophy about how we were going to play the game suited these players. Then it was just a matter of time when you put that group together with that coach that they come even closer and closer together and that's what this team has done.''
The Lightning, meanwhile, recovered from those early-season inconsistencies that were aided by some key injuries to Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, with a turnaround that started on Jan. 1 as the defending Eastern Conference champions finished the season on a 28-15-1 run, which included a franchise-record nine-game winning streak as well as a seven-game winning streak.
"I look back at this season and think about our struggles in the first 15-20 games, somewhere we had not been before," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "As far as we went last year, then coming back this year, maybe we were not as engaged in the regular season as we should have been. Then there was the injury portion and that was a long stretch to lose the Palats and the Johnsons and go on down the list of who got hurt.
"In a weird way it was a refocus for us and we had to survive without some important players on this team. When we got everybody back, that's when we kind of kicked it in to gear. We made a couple of runs that catapulted us here and we knew what we could do and that's what has put us in this position now."
5 matchups that will determine Eastern Conference finals:
Lightning penalty kill vs Penguins power play
Pittsburgh's power play can be a game changer, just as it was in the series-clinching game against Washington, scoring on both ends of a four-minute man advantage. Overall the Penguins have scored 11 power play goals through the first two rounds, tied for second most in the postseason. Tampa Bay's penalty kill, meanwhile, has been stellar in the playoffs allowing just one goal in the opening round against Detroit -- including two lengthy 5-on-3 chances -- and is clicking at 88.4 percent in the postseason.
Victor Hedman vs. Pittsburgh's top line
Hedman went head-to-head against John Tavares in the second round series against the Islanders and not only kept Tavares in check, holding the New York captain to one goal and two points, but ended up with four goals and eight points in the five games. The Lightning will have to choose who Hedman gets a crack at this round -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Phil Kessel.
Ben Bishop vs. Matt Murray
Bishop is now the established playoff veteran after leading the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final last season. The Vezina Trophy candidate was sold in leading Tampa Bay back to the conference final, pitching shutouts in each of the series-clinching victories. Murray has come out of the background to push Pittsburgh past the New York Rangers and Washington. The 21-year-old has already lived up to his expectations, but with Marc-Andre Fluery back to health, how long the No. 1 job be Murray's?
Nikita Kucherov vs. Kris Letang
Tampa Bay's top offensive threat (playoff best nine goals) figures to see plenty of Letang in this series. Kucherov has established himself as a clutch playoff performer in the past two seasons -- two overtime goals last season, two third-period tying goals against the Islanders. Letang had a Norris-caliber season and logs the heavy minutes on the backend for the Peguins and will likely draw the assignment to slow down the Lightning's top scorer.
Tampa Bay vs. Consol Energy Center
In the first two rounds the Lightning used home ice to their advantage, winning five of six games at Amalie Arena while going 2-2 on the road. But Tampa Bay does not hold home-ice advantage in this series, meaning they will have to find a way to win in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins went 26-11-4 in the regular season and are 5-1 in the playoffs. The Lightning historically have not played well in Consol, posting an all-time record of 4-8-1 since it opened in 2010, with three of those victories coming in the 2011 opening round playoff series.