Some say hockey is a winter sport, that the season should conclude when the snow stops flying. Those same people likely haven’t taken even a minute to watch a game of spring hockey.

Tomorrow marks the commencement of the 2011 Staley Cup Playoffs, and with all due respect to that December holiday, this is the most wonderful time of the year.

It’s the time of year when superstition supersedes common sense, when looking like a lumberjack is more important than looking like a functioning member of society, when a player’s personal health isn’t quite as important as the team’s success.

As Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Malone said in today’s Post-Gazette, “that’s what hockey is all about.”

In Pittsburgh playoff hockey is all about a rabid fanbase looking to build on a winning tradition. But this year’s edition of the Penguins could have as difficult of a path as any, as they’re playing with arguably the least star power they’ve ever had in the playoffs.

Second line center Evgeni Malkin is out for the playoffs, which would be a significant loss on its own. But couple that with the uncertainty of a return date (if any) for first line center Sidney Crosby, and the odds look too difficult to overcome.

But that’s exactly what was said in January, when the Penguins learned they would be without their two star centers for an extended period of time, yet the Penguins played the final two months of the season as if they hadn’t lost a step, placing fourth in the Eastern Conference and fourth in the NHL.

Not bad for a team most expected to fall apart.

Sure, the Penguins went from a beautiful, flowing production that often led to 4-2 and 5-3 wins to a more methodical and less exciting brand that produced more in the way of 3-2 and 2-1 wins. But the end result was the same, and when it’s all said and done, a win is a win.

Now, heading into a series against the revamped Lightning, the Penguins will be looking to beat their opponent with a dose of their own medicine.

The Lightning, coached by mastermind rookie coach Guy Boucher, have adopted a 1-3-1 system that allows their players to play better as a group than they could as individuals. The Penguins, while not using the same X’s and O’s, also must rely on schematics over skill to win. And with potential Jack Adams candidate Dan Bylsma behind the bench, the Lightning certainly will have their hands full.

In the end, as it generally does in the playoffs, the series will come down to goaltending.

With that being said, let’s breakdown the series.

Offense

With Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins just might be as offensively talented as any team in the NHL and easily would surpass the Lightning. But the Penguins don’t have Crosby and Malkin, and the Lightning have Hart candidate Martin St. Louis, sniper Steven Stamkos, and a rejuvenated Vincent Lecavalier. On pure offensive talent alone, there’s no debate.

Advantage Tampa Bay

Defense

Fortunately for the Penguins they remain fully healthy on the blueline heading into the playoffs, and while they surprisingly have given up more goals in the absence of their star forwards, their stats remain in the league’s top ten. The Lightning, meanwhile are relying on a slow and relatively immobile group that hasn’t been quite as effective as their offense has been.

Advantage Pittsburgh

Goaltending

Marc-Andre Fleury doesn’t have a career reputation as being the most consistent performer in net, but his 2010-11 campaign resulted in an All-Star appearance and even garnered a grassroots Hart discussion. At the other end of the ice, the Lightning are backstopped by a has-been (Dwayne Roloson) and a never-was (Mike Smith), which inevitably will cause problems.

Advantage Pittsburgh

Special Teams

In Pittsburgh, fans have grown accustomed to a dynamite power play and a terrible penalty kill, but the opposite is quite true this season, as the Penguins finished with the best penalty kill and the 25th ranked power play. While the Lightning certainly aren’t as effective down a man as the Penguins are, they remain quite viable (ranked eighth), and their power play is sixth best in the league. Ultimately, the Penguins’ stellar PK and ineffective PP could render special teams useless in this series – which ultimately means any power play goal for either team will be huge.

Advantage Tampa Bay

Coaching
Say what you want about the Penguins’ ineffective power play or Bylsma’s inability to adjust to trapping style teams, his track record speaks for itself. He’s a Stanley Cup winning coach, and more importantly, he’s coached what has amounted to a minor league roster at many times this season to a fourth place finish in the NHL. Boucher, meanwhile, is looking to do what Bylsma and precious few others have done: win a Cup in his rookie season as head coach. Make no mistake about it, Boucher is a formidable coach with a great mind for the game, but he hasn’t coached in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Advantage Pittsburgh

Overall

When push comes to shove in the playoffs, defense and goaltending win. The Lightning play an innovative 1-3-1 system, but their defenders and goaltenders as individuals just aren’t that good. Penguins fans can attest from one year ago, when a team’s defense isn’t up to par, it doesn’t matter who is skating on its’ offense. The Penguins contrast the Lightning with a strong, mobile, and positionally sound group of defenders backstopped by a goaltender having what amounts to a career year.

Advantage Pittsburgh

Keep close to Faceoff-Factor for additional playoff coverage, including predictions for each series of each round from your favorite writers and staffers!