The Bruins and Lightning both have had a lot of time off since sweeping their semifinal series, but they will finally return to action on Saturday for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Bruins won three of the four meetings between the teams in the regular season, though if one generally shouldn’t place too much stock in regular-season contests come playoff time, they should place even less stock in them in this case. Dwayne Roloson was in net for a grand total of zero of those contests, as he was only with the Lightning for the teams’ March 3 meeting but did not play in the 2-1 Bruins victory.
Another reason why the regular-season results might not be too telling in this series? The Capitals went 4-1-1 against the Lightning this year before being swept by Tampa Bay in the second round.
So how do the Bruins and Lightning match up? Here’s a look:
Tampa Bay has one of the league’s most dangerous goal-scorers in Steven Stamkos (45 goals in the regular season) as well as a Hart Trophy finalist in Martin St. Louis (99 points). Factor in the likes of Vincent Lecavalier, a healthy Simon Gagne and Teddy Purcell, and there are plenty of weapons for the Bruins to worry about.
This postseason, the Lightning have been getting production throughout their lineup. Stamkos has a human-like four goals, but who saw Sean Bergenheim coming? After scoring 14 goals over 80 regular-season games, the third-line winger has seven playoff goals to lead all remaining players. St. Louis has six, while Lecavalier has five.
The Bruins have three players with five goals this postseason in David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Brad Marchand. As big as Krejci was in the second round against the Flyers (4 G, 5 A in four games) and against the Lightning in the regular season (2 G, 2 A in four games), he and his linemates will need to keep it up this round. Given the absence of Patrice Bergeron (concussion), the team’s leader in points (12) and arguably its best player this postseason, the B’s can’t afford to not have at least their first line firing on all cylinders.
As for Bergeron’s line, the Bruins will be going with Chris Kelly in his place. Kelly is an obvious choice to skate between Marchand and Mark Recchi with Bergeron out because of the similar styles they play. Kelly is a solid two-way player, and though he doesn’t bring you what Bergeron does offensively, he has impressed in the postseason for the B’s. The 30-year-old had six points over Games 3-7 against the Canadiens, although he saw his statistical output slow down vs. the Flyers. He had a big first-period goal in Game 2 that began a comeback in a game Boston would end up winning, but it was his only point of the series. Additionally, he failed to register a shot on goal in Games 1 and 3. Nobody can expect him to replace Bergeron, but if Kelly has the kind of success he had late in the Montreal series, the Bruins will have no complaints.
Then there’s the return of Tyler Seguin to the lineup. The rookie has been a healthy scratch for the entire playoffs, but with Kelly jumping up from the third line to the second in Bergeron’s absence, Seguin will be on the third line, seemingly until Bergeron returns. Skating on the right wing on a line centered by Rich Peverley with Michael Ryder on the other wing, Seguin is skating with guys he’s plenty familiar with based on the regular season. It’s hard to expect much from the rookie, but Claude Julien has to hope that the line will still be strong enough for him to roll the trio out there confidently. Seguin’s biggest issue has been the physical aspect of the game, but he’s said all the right things to this point about playing a tougher game. The proof will be in the pudding for the rookie. He may not be expected to light up the score sheet, but he certainly needs to make the most time given to him.
In the regular season, the B’s scored 2.98 goals per game (fifth in the NHL) to the Lightning’s 2.94 (seventh). In 11 playoff contests, Tampa has a league-best 3.46 goals per game, while Boston is second with 3.36 per game. The bottom line is that the Lightning have the best scorers in this series, while the Bruins will enter it without their leading point man this postseason.
The Lightning may have the best forward in this series, but the Bruins most certainly have the best defenseman in Zdeno Chara. The B’s captain has formed a predictably formidable pairing with Dennis Seidenberg, and though Chara and Seidenberg will have their hands full with Tampa’s top line, there isn’t an opposing player in the league who likes being out there at the same time as Chara.
Though it can be a pretty deceiving statistic in some cases, Chara leads all postseason players with a plus-11 rating. His 28:41 average time on ice is tops among all remaining players, while Seidenberg’s 28:34 puts him second in the category. The Bruins have gotten sound play from Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk as well, with Boychuk coming up with big goals in both of the Bruins’ series-clinching wins thus far and Ference scoring what would have been remembered as simply as the goal that brought the B’s within one in the second period of Game 4 were it not for the bird he flipped the Bell Centre crowd in celebration.
Tomas Kaberle may have a shiny plus-5 rating (see the above preface about that statistic), but both the Bruins and Kaberle should be hoping for more. Julien played Kaberle for only three shifts in the final period of Game 4 vs. the Flyers, and he played only 13:20 and 13:25 in Games 3 and 4, respectively. This series, Kaberle has an opportunity to make a real difference as he is a gifted passer, and good puck-moving defensemen can help dismantle the Lightning’s 1-3-1 forecheck. If he can help in that area, Kaberle could be a real weapon this round, which would be an unfamiliar but welcomed sight for Bruins fans.
As for Kaberle’s partner, the Bruins continue to say they expect Adam McQuaid to return in time for the start of the series. Watching him practice, there’s no doubt he is good to go. The rookie defenseman sprained his neck when he went head first into the boards trying to hit Mike Richards in Game 2 of the second round, but he’s taken and received plenty of physical contact recently and appears ready for Saturday.
Fellow rookie defenseman Steven Kampfer continues to progress for the B’s, and now that he has been cleared for contact, Julien indicated that it’s simply a matter of conditioning before Kampfer would be ready to play if need be. That makes things interesting, because if he is available to return at some point in this series, one would think he would leapfrog Shane Hnidy as the next man up should a B’s defenseman go down. Kampfer had two shots on goal in two games vs. the Lightning this year, and both of them went in. Like Kaberle, he could be an asset in beating the 1-3-1 given his skill set, so should if the Bruins are to lose a defenseman to injury this series and Kampfer is healthy, expect him to be the man for the job.
For Tampa Bay, the Eric Brewer acquisition in February was a wise move, and he’s been a shot-blocking machine this postseason. He leads the team in average time on ice (21:59) and is followed by former second overall pick Victor Hedman.
The B’s aren’t the only team waiting for a player to return from a concussion. Defenseman Pavel Kubina, who has a pair of power-play goals for Tampa Bay this postseason, is expected to miss Game 1 of the series, and it is unknown when he may return.
Long story short, the Lightning block a ton of shots, and Julien has noted the B’s will need to find a way around it. They’ve allowed just as many goals this postseason (24) as the Bruins. Still, pound for pound, the B’s boast the better defense between the two teams.
The Bruins had a tough time with Carey Price in the first round before going against a struggling defense and average goaltending from the Flyers, but the party is over. Roloson is the only goalie with better numbers than Tim Thomas this postseason, as the 41-year-old leads all playoff netminders with a .941 save percentage and a 2.01 goals-against average. The Lightning, who started the season with Dan Ellis and Mike Smith splitting time, may not have had a goaltender back then, but they do now.
As for Thomas, what more can be said? He was the regular season’s best goaltender, and he hasn’t disappointed in the playoffs. The Bruins can point to Game 2 of the conference semifinals and indentify Thomas’ 52-save effort in the overtime win as a reason they were able to take a game in which they were clearly outplayed by Philadelphia. If Thomas didn’t stand on his head in that game, the Flyers could have stood a chance of making a series out of it, but Thomas, much as he did all season, closed the door.
Thomas is the better of the two, but both goaltenders have turned in excellent performances in the playoffs, and both are equally capable of stealing a game or two.
This one isn’t close … at all.
The Bruins are taking baby steps with their power play, and the results started to show toward the end of the semifinals with their first two power-play goals (only one of which came on a 5-on-4). Still, with two power play goals through 11 games and 37 opportunities, the Bruins are scoring at just a 5.4 percent clip on the man advantage, which is far and away the worst among the four teams remaining. In fact, if you count all 16 teams that made the playoffs, the Bruins are 14th in power-play goals, ahead of only two teams that were eliminated in the first round in the Rangers and Penguins (one power-play goal apiece). They’ll face a Tampa team that has killed off penalties at a 94.4 percent rate, which would be the best among all teams to make the playoffs, but the B’s helped the Canadiens sew up a spot atop that list by failing to score on the power play in the first round.
Seguin could be a factor on the power play for as long as he’s in the lineup, and making a difference on the man advantage would be a good way to stay in once Bergeron returns. The rookie was given time on the power play late in the season before he returned to being a healthy scratch, and his skills certainly could be used.
The penalty kill will be another area in which the B’s will miss Bergeron while he’s out. For the time being, Krejci will step in for Bergeron on the unit, with Julien noting that they’ll rely even more heavily on the likes of Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille. The Boston PK has an 80.5 percent kill rate, which is 10th among all playoff teams and last among remaining teams.
The Lightning’s power play is a sight to be seen, and one the Bruins will hope they don’t end up seeing much of. They’ve scored on 26.7 percent of their power plays, with St. Louis (three goals), Stamkos, Lecavalier and Pavel Kubina (two apiece) all racking up multiple PP goals thus far.
As a result, the Bruins will need to make sure they spend as little time in the penalty box as possible. This isn’t to say that the Bruins should be off their game, but they certainly will need to play with the utmost discipline to avoid what Marchand calls a “deadly weapon” in the Lightning’s power play.
This series can be viewed as a lot of things: the Bruins’ first trip to the conference finals since 1992, the Lightning’s first trip back since they won the Stanley Cup in 2004, or the third series this postseason in which Recchi faces a team for which he once played. Forget all that. This is a showdown of former Hamilton Bulldogs coaches.
All kidding aside, both of these coaches do have interesting stories this year. Guy Boucher couldn’t have imagined a better start to his NHL coaching career. He’s having a ball with that 1-3-1, and it’s brought him within four wins of a Stanley Cup finals appearance in his first year on the job.
Meanwhile, it took Julien eight years to get that eighth win in the playoffs, but this season he finally led a team out of the second round, and he deserves credit. Many were calling for him to take Michael Ryder out of the lineup after the first two games of the Montreal series, but Julien stuck to his guns and saw it pay off.
One thing that Julien has that Boucher does not is the wisdom of years and experience. None of Julien’s postseasons have ended in the desired result, but he has been through the grind of a postseason before. He had the long layoff two years ago before the first and second rounds, and the B’s went on to lose in seven games to the Hurricanes. He can use past experiences to factor into his handling all of the time differently this time around, whether it’s on the ice, in what he says to players or anything else. This is uncharted territory for both coaches, but Julien has far more playoff experience.
Canadiens in six in the first round, Bruins in six in the second round. At least we got the right team the last time around, right?
The Bruins’ success should not totally depend on whether or not Bergeron is in the lineup, but it won’t be easy without him. With him out, some players will need to maintain their high levels of play, while others will have to raise their game. This is a series the B’s are capable of winning without him, but there is no question that his services — whether offensively, on the penalty kill or from a leadership standpoint — will be missed for as long he’s out.
Before the first round, the thought here was that if the B’s could get past the Canadiens, they could make it to the Stanley Cup finals. Since then, the team has raised its level of play considerably, so there’s no reason to jump ship now. It should be a very competitive series given the uncertainty surrounding Bergeron, but it should ultimately end with the B’s advancing.
Prediction: Bruins in six