It is a nearly universal truth of the Stanley Cup playoffs that a team's best players have to be its best players.
Sure, there can be short-term exceptions: Frank Pietrangelo can make one of the great saves in franchise history. Darius Kasparaitis can wrist a long-range shot past the world's greatest goaltender in a Game 7 overtime. Max Talbot can generate all of the offense on the decisive night of a championship.
If those sort of things happen over a sustained stretch, then a team likely is lowering its own bar. At some point, Mario Lemieux or Jaromir Jagr or Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin must rise to the top. It takes only a cursory glance at the list of the NHL's Conn Smythe Trophy winners for proof.
And yes, the same can be spoken of a team that is missing Crosby and Malkin. These Penguins, who skate into Game 3 of their first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight in Florida, have their own best players, their own bar to reach.
"You hear a lot about how, with our two big guys out, it's got to be more of an effort by committee," defenseman Brooks Orpik said Sunday after practice at Consol Energy Center. "And I think that's true in the sense that you're never going to replace what those guys bring. But still, there are guys in here who have to lead the way, who have to be better."
Here is a look at the players who should be the Penguins' best at each of the six starting positions, and what they must do for the team to prevail against the Lightning:
- Matchup: Penguins at Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:38 p.m. today, St. Pete Times Forum.
- TV, radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Series: Tied, 1-1.
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins; Dwayne Roloson for Lightning.
- Penguins: Have lost past two road playoff games after winning previous five. ... C Jordan Staal, who is minus-2 in series, has had negative plus-minus rating in each of past four playoff runs. ... Own all-time record of 19-8 in Game 3 when on road.
- Lightning: Went 25-11-5 at home in the regular season, including two victories against Penguins. ... C Nate Thompson has 10 hits through two games. ... Averaged 18 blocked shots in first two games.
- Hidden stat: Winning team has scored five or more goals in four of six games between Penguins and Lightning this season.
It never has been fair to Staal, even though he was drafted No. 2 overall, to expect him to be a prolific scorer. He always has had the pedigree of a two-way center in the Bobby Holik/Joel Otto prototype.
But this is a different setting, one with Staal on the first line and first-team power play.
He has shown he is capable, including a bullish Game 1 in which he had six shots, all from close range, and might easily have had a goal or three if not for lousy luck. But Staal fizzled in Game 2, with one shot, a minus-3 rating and a terribly ill-advised boarding penalty -- in the attacking zone, no less -- that led to Tampa Bay's second goal on a power play.
"That can't happen," Staal said Sunday. "You can't get too carried away with penalties when you're facing a power play like that."
As for the offensive burden ...
"I haven't really changed anything in these playoffs. Obviously, I'm in a position to create a lot more offense, and I've been able to get a few good looks. Unfortunately, they haven't gone in."
Staal's challenge might be magnified as the series moves to Florida, especially if Penguins coach Dan Bylsma keeps trying to match up against Tampa Bay's top line centered by Vincent Lecavalier. The home coach gets the last line change, and the Lightning's Guy Boucher can be expected to try to avoid it.
It would appear that no player could have a greater impact on the Penguins' offense. Neal is every inch a power forward, 6 feet 2, 208 pounds, sturdy on his skates, shooting with enough force to be a long-range threat.
But he has scored just once since being acquired from Dallas on Feb. 21, and that might have plenty to do with where he aims his shots: He has registered 59 in 22 games, a healthy total, but he almost always shoots high, and goaltenders appear to have figured that out.
Asked how he could turn chances into goals, Neal replied, "Just keep doing what I'm doing: Shoot the puck, and bear down on those opportunities as much as possible. It's not going to be pretty when it goes in. Just go to the net and bang in a loose puck."
Neal had one of the best shifts of anyone in these playoffs in Game 1 when he stormed the Tampa Bay zone for nearly a full minute before deftly setting up Alexei Kovalev's winning goal. If he were to add more tangible offense like that, the Penguins would take on a whole new look.
Kovalev is the most accomplished postseason performer on either side, so that aspect of his expectations should be obvious. But he also is needed on two other fronts against this opponent.
One is busting through Tampa Bay's passive trap system designed to force turnovers in the neutral zone. The system has not yet been devised that can keep Kovalev from carrying a puck -- this is a guy who could stickhandle through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel at 5 p.m. -- and that makes it imperative that he handles most of the navigating tonight and beyond.
"They're a really patient team, especially when they get the lead," Kovalev said of the Lightning. "We've got to be smart about how we take the puck up the ice."
The other area is one out of Kovalev's comfort zone: He needs to establish himself as the power-play quarterback on the half-wall, where he practiced again Sunday. Asking Kovalev to stay in one spot on the ice is ambitious bordering on unrealistic, but he is the best remaining passer on the team.
Letang has gone from legitimate Norris Trophy candidate to someone visibly searching for answers. He is without a goal in his past 26 games, and he is fresh off a mistake-filled Game 2.
Letang, visibly displeased Friday night, was short on words after that game, then unavailable for interviews Sunday. But others addressed his play.
"Kris is aware he wasn't at his best in Game 2, but a large part of our success in Game 1 was because he was very, very good," Bylsma said. "That's something that we need from him if we're going to go into Tampa Bay and win a game in Game 3."
"I know people are pointing to his last game, but he played well in Game 1," Orpik, Letang's partner, said. "He just needs to look at video, see the mistakes, learn from them and move on."
Offensively, above all, Letang needs to get his shots on net. He has registered five, but he also had that many blocked, and he misfired on three others. He also might do well to get back to his usual role as a trailer on the rush. More than once in Game 2, he tried to lead rushes to no avail, then was trapped deep.
Defensively, Letang has five hits, but he can do more to keep Tampa Bay's forwards from setting up in the low slot. He has the strength and the mean streak to do it.
This one is simple: Orpik has been the Penguins' most physical, most poised and, thus, their most effective player through two games. If everyone were playing at his level, a sweep would be in order.
Part of Orpik's challenge, as the team's vocal leader, is to help push teammates. That was evident with his admonishment for the lack of discipline in Game 2, followed by the broad smile he was flashing Sunday in a clear attempt to lighten the mood.
"It's pretty upbeat," Orpik said. "Game 2 wasn't anything they did spectacular. It was about a lot of mistakes we made. Besides, we've been in a lot worse positions than this."
This one is equally simple: If Fleury plays at the elite level he showed for most of the regular season -- never mind his superhuman level of Game 1 -- the Penguins will win the series. And that is largely due to his position being the critical variable.
As Kovalev put it, "They say the goalie is like half your team this time of year."
That also would explain why the Penguins appeared to have only half a chance to take Game 2: Fleury gave up a goal on the first shot he saw -- an unscreened, short-side wrister by a defenseman -- and would give up three more on Tampa Bay's next 13 shots.
Fleury is the Penguins' best player at any position on the roster, and that makes his immediate turnaround paramount.
"It's just one loss," Fleury said Sunday of Game 2. "We've beaten them before, and we get to play them again. We're looking forward to getting back to playing the way we can."