Lightning: Emotional return to postseason for Malone
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For a long time, Ryan Malone sat in full uniform at his stall in the Penguins locker room at old Mellon/Civic Arena. Someone brought him a towel to sop up the emotion that overwhelmed him to the point that he couldn't speak.
Malone had a pretty fair idea that he had just played his final game for his hometown Penguins, and it was a gut-wrenching, 3-2 loss to Detroit in a deciding Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final.
That was June 4, 2008. A few weeks later, the Upper St. Clair native signed with Tampa Bay after the Lightning traded a draft pick to the Penguins for his rights before he became a free agent.
Malone will be back in town Wednesday with the Lightning, which opens a first-round playoff series against the Penguins, the first postseason game at Consol Energy Center.
His emotions will be running high again but with a decidedly different flavor.
"Every time you play against your old team, you have that weird feeling or whatever you want to call it. It will be fun to get a chance to play them in the playoffs," the power forward said.
For that matter, he and his Tampa Bay teammates are thrilled to be back in the postseason against anyone, anywhere.
"It will make me very happy to be back in the playoffs," Malone said. "I haven't had that chance since I was in Pitt. From that experience, that's what hockey is all about."
The Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004, just before the NHL shut down for a season because of labor negotiations. When play resumed, Tampa lost in the first round in '06, to Ottawa and in '07, to New Jersey. It failed to make the playoffs the past three seasons.
Two key forwards are among the players who remain from the Cup team. Center Vincent Lecavalier had nine goals, 17 points over the final 14 regular-season games. Winger Martin St. Louis finished second in league scoring with 99 points.
Several team members -- including third-year center Steven Stamkos, who finished second in the NHL with 45 goals -- haven't experienced the playoffs.
"Going to the postseason is going to be a lot of fun," said second-year defenseman Victor Hedman. "A lot of guys have been playing here for a long time and have been waiting for this for a long time. So am I. I haven't really played in the playoffs yet, even back in [my native] Sweden.
"We have people that have won the Stanley Cup. Listening to them, what it was like to win the Cup, it gets you pumped up."
The Lightning finished fifth in the Eastern Conference, but it wasn't too many weeks ago that there was a danger of falling lower. There was a frustrating four-game losing streak in late March.
"If you would have asked me [then], I would have said no, there's no hunger," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said. "[Since then], everybody's feeling it."
The Lightning followed that losing skid with a 7-1 record to close the regular season. That included a 2-1 win March 31 against the Penguins at the St. Pete Times Forum.
The Penguins, who have been without former scoring champions Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Evgeni Malkin (knee surgery) for an extended time, closed the regular season with four wins after the loss in Tampa.
The Lightning recognizes what the Penguins accomplished while playing through a long list of injuries that only starts with their two star centers.
"You've got Crosby, Malkin -- one goes out, you say they're going to be all right. Then Malkin goes down," said veteran winger Simon Gagne, who has been limited at times by a neck injury but still had 17 goals, 40 points in 63 games in his first season with Tampa Bay.
"But they've got so much depth, some good veteran players. They definitely got stronger defensively last summer by signing those two defensemen [Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek], and they've got a good goalie [in Marc-Andre Fleury].
"If you've got a good system and good defense, even if you're losing some offense, you're going to be able to win some games. So you're not surprised at the end about what they did, but you still have to give them credit."
Although Boucher said over the weekend that he's planning as if Crosby will return and play in the series, he's prepared either way -- and he doesn't see an easy path without Crosby.
"They've played tremendous," Boucher said. "One thing you can't forget is, they've got little guys that make them probably the fastest team we're going to meet. That's very hard to play against -- the little [Tyler] Kennedys and [Chris] Kunitzes and these guys. They're like buzzing bees. They work hard and they pay the price.
"It's just a different look, but it's not easier because the top guys are not there. When you play Crosby and Malkin, what's tough is you can't handle them one on one. When they're not there, it's a different style. It's just as hard, but different."
NOTES -- Game 4 of the series, April 20 at Tampa, has been moved to 7:08 p.m. ... The Penguins will erect a large outdoor screen where fans can watch the first-round games. It will be in the south parking lot of the Civic Arena, near Gate 2 and across Centre Avenue from Consol Energy Center. ... The Penguins were given the day off Monday. ... Lecavalier (four goals, five points in three games) was named the NHL's second star of the final week of the season. ... Penguins affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Lightning affiliate Norfolk are meeting in the first round of the American Hockey League playoffs, beginning Friday at Wilkes-Barre.
First Published April 12, 2011 12:00 am