Here’s a look at how the Eastern Conference Championship round shapes up, looking at the key categories and assessing who has the advantage in each. You can draw your own conclusions. No predictions from me because, as Toe Blake always said…
…”Predictions are for gypsies.”
Boston — Right behind the Lightning in playoff scoring (37 goals) and in average goals per game (3.36) as well as being the playoffs best team 5-on-5 (31 goals), the Bruins may not have the elite level players Tampa Bay has, but they make up for it with a strong top six and good depth after that. However, they enter the series without second line center Patrice Bergeron, sixth in playoff scoring, who is recuperating from a mild concussion suffered when checked by the Flyers Claude Giroux in Game 4. How long he’ll be out is uncertain but what the absence of his creativity and faceoff prowess will mean for linemates Mark Recchi and Brad Marchand is unknown. Chris Kelly will move up from the third line, where he’s done well Rich Peverley and old friend Michael Ryder. Peverley will now move to center and rookie Tyler Seguin, who has yet to play in the post season, will take that spot on the wing. But much of what the B’s do offensively will hinge on the top line of David Krejci between Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton. It took a while for this threesome to get going in the playoffs and Krejci and Horton got there before Lucic, who only found the net in the last game against Philly. The fourth line of Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton brings energy and their crashing style might help break down the Tampa Bay defenses. The big weapon on the blueline is the mammoth shot of Zdeno Chara. Tomas Kaberle has yet to consistently display his top offensive skills in a Boston uniform, but Johnny Boychuk has a good shot and Dennis Sidenberg makes a good first pass. Not known for his offense, Andrew Ference has contributed some timely plays this post-season. The Bruins can produce goals off the rush and also grinding it out along the boards, but they’ll need a better plan to pierce Tampa’s 1-3-1 than Washington, whose dump and chase didn’t work and would couldn’t effectively skate through the neutral zone.
Tampa Bay — Leading all playoff teams in goals (38) and average goals per game (3.46), the Lightning not only boasts some of the NHL’s most dynamic forwards in Marty St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, a revived Vinny Lecavalier and Simon Gagne (when healthy), but have also gotten excellent contributions from lesser-knowns Teddy Purcell, Steve Downie, Sean Bergenheim and ex-Hab Dominik Moore. Coach Guy Boucher spreads them out well over his top three lines and when he’s also got an experienced player capable of timely contributions in Ryan Malone. Their third line of Downie, Moore and Bergenheim flustered the Penguins and Capitals. Gagne’s return would allow them to dress 12 forwards (they went with 11 in his absence) and make their top six even more dangerous. They also have some good offensive talent on their defence corps, although it hasn’t shown yet statistically, likely because Boucher has reigned them in. As Habs fans know, Marc-Andre Bergeron has a great shot and can make a strong first pass. Veteran Eric Brewer and young Victor Hedman both have good offensive skills as well. If Pavel Kubina can return from his suspected concussion suffered when elbowed by Jason Chimera during the Washington series, he’d provide another big shot from the point. He still hasn’t resumed skating. This is a quick strike offense that has good speed in transition and traps opposing defenders behind the play.
ADVANTAGE — Tampa Bay, especially because of Patrice Bergeron’s absence.
Boston — Playing a rugged, typically-Bruins style in all three zones, the B’s have allowed the fewest goals among teams remaining the the playoffs. Coach Claude Julien is a defense-first coach, and his clubs usually play a responsible game without the puck. Chara can dominate a game merely with his size, and no one on Tampa Bay is his equal, although he’s seemed less than 100 percent since his bout of dehydration in the Canadiens series. The Bruins’ extended rest should help him. He’s been paired with Dennis Sidenberg, Boston’s best shot blocker (tied for fifth most in the playoffs), and they’ve formed a formidable shutdown duo. The rest of the B’s blueline corps, with the exception of Kaberle, can play a hard game and they’re complimented by forwards who are not reluctant to take the body at every opportunity. Their biggest problems are 1) refraining from being overly-physical to stay out of the penalty box and 2) a lack of mobility (or a penchant for not moving their feet, depending on your orientation) that can be exposed by quicker forwards. That happened against both Canadiens and Philadelphia, and the Bruins have allowed over 34 shots a game (a high number, although somewhat skewed because of the four overtime games they’ve played), but goalie Tim Thomas has been the great equalizer in those situations. Large rookie defenseman Adam McQuaid, who had played effectively, injured his neck missing a check against the Flyers Mike Richards and crashing into the endboards. It’s expected he’ll be back for Game 1.
Tampa Bay — As the dismantling of the Capitals showed, this is the most underrated part of Tampa Bay’s game. With the Lightning, it’s all about Boucher’s 1-3-1 scheme, a modified version of the neutral zone trap that clogs up the middle of the ice, making it difficult to attack with speed (and here’s an excellent video presentation of how it works). It has worked well enough to tie the Bruins for fewest goals against among the teams remaining in the playoffs. It masks whatever deficiencies the Bolts have among their defence corps, but while that group is not considered particularly strong, they are fine within the system, and not as bad as detractors believe. Since Brewer arrived in February, they’ve cut their goals against average by a full goal per game, from just over 3 to just over 2. Boucher deployed the tandem of Brewer and Mattias Ohlund against Alex Ovechkin last round with young Hedman (who has played his best hockey ever this spring) and the improved veteran ex-Hab Brett Clark as the effective back-up. The consistent play of Mike Lundin has been another plus. Marc-Andre Bergeron’s deficiencies are well known, but he’s been spotted well by the coaches. The Lightning have blocked more shots than any team in the postseason and their top four defenders rank in the top five on the shotblocking leader board. They’ve also been getting good two-way play from their forwards and following Boucher’s system has reaped great rewards, so they have bought in. The Bolts have allowed over 35 shots per game, but that’s a somewhat misleading figure because they allow the opponent low percentage shots which goalie Dwayne Roloson gobbles up.
ADVANTAGE — Even
Boston — Very simply, no one is playing goal better than Tim Thomas this spring. Like his team, he has gotten better as the tournament has gone on after the shaky start against Montreal. While he barely trails Roloson in the key stats of goals against average (2.03 to 2.01) and save percentage (.941 to .937), he has allowed almost no leaky goals since the early stages of the Habs series. Time and again he’s bailed out his team in tough spots with amazing saves. His remarkable dexterity and reflexes not only allow him to make all the saves he should but many that he shouldn’t, and that’s the mark of an exceptional goalie. His value to the team is incalculable and if he continues this form and the B’s advance to the final, he’ll be a strong Conn Smythe candidate.
Tampa Bay (4) — Pretty close to equal with Thomas this spring, Roloson is the perfect goalie for Boucher’s system. He plays a technically sound game and allows very little to get through him. He’s been to the finals before and knows the territory. The rap on him was he has lost some of his mobility with age, but if so, he’s been able to compensate with better efficiency. Unlike his predecessors, he’s given the Lightning confidence to push the play offensively with the knowledge that he’ll be there at the other end. Like Thomas, he is capable of the spectacular save when the defenses breaks down in front of him. Also, like Thomas, he plays better under pressure and has raised his game in the playoffs. He has excellent leadership skills, despite his cranky old man image that has Tampa Bay fans buying Roloson “Get off my lawn” T-shirts. He also could be a Conn Smythe candidate should the Bolts advance.
ADVANTAGE — Slightly to Boston
Boston — If the Bruins have had an Achilles’ heel this spring, it’s here. Their power play was miserable against the Habs and only 2-for-37 in the first two rounds — and those two came late in the second round, one on a 5-on-3. Kaberle has not been the missing ingredient hoped for when he was acquired from Toronto, he’s just been missing. B’s fans have to hope the late success against the Flyers carries over, but Lightning penalty kill could extend their misery. Boston’s PK has allowed eight goals in 41 kills, 80.5 percent, not terrible, but the lowest of the four remaining teams in the playoffs, and they won’t have Bergeron, at least at the outset, for either the PK or the PP. Krejci will take his spot on the PK and hopefully those elevated minutes won’t take a toll on him at full strength. They’d be wise to stay out of the penalty box and focus on full strength hockey.
Tampa Bay — With 12 power play goals in 11 games, the Lightning lead the playoffs in extra-man goals and own the best percentage (26.7) of the remaining teams. The power play is a Boucher specialty, and was his calling card to the big time, first in the QMJHL, then starting in 2006 as Team Canada’s special teams coach for Under-18s and later the World Junior Championships. He has lots of weapons: one-timers by Stamkos or Lecavalier, the mobility of St. Louis, the sniping of Gagne, the blasts from the point by Bergeron, the net presence of Malone and more. Their PK is also the best of the remaining teams, having killed 51 of 54 advantages, a staggering 94.4 percent. Moore, Bergenheim, Adam Hall and Nate Thompson do a fine job up front when a man short and it’s here that the shot-blocking D really stands out. Assistant coach Wayne Fleming masterminded the Bolts’ PK. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, he had surgery early this month and hasn’t been with the club much recently. But his illness is giving the club extra motivation.
ADVANTAGE — Tampa Bay
Boston — A veteran of four previous Stanley Cup appearances, one with Montreal in 2004, Julien has never taken an NHL team this far in the playoffs. He coached the Hull Olympiques to the Memorial Cup championship in 1996-97. His defensive style works well in post-season play, but his critics charge he is tactically inflexible (and they cite his unwillingness to overhaul the season-long struggling power play) and perhaps overly loyal (he’s had Michael Ryder with him off and on since Hull and resisted calls to bench Ryder when slumping, which was proven right against the Habs in the first round). His players credit him with remaining calm and confident when Boston fell behind Montreal 2-0 which helped them turn the series in their favor. There’s not much in the NHL he hasn’t seen, but how he navigates Boucher’s scheme will be his biggest challenge.
Tampa Bay — Not afraid to be different or flexible, Boucher has won over his players and impressed observers with his innovative system, tireless preparation and motivational tactics, which have borne obvious fruit this spring. If his in-season transformation of an offense-happy club into a more well-rounded group didn’t fully penetrate the collective consciousness of the hockey world during the regular season, it certainly should have by now. Highly educated, averse to routine and considered a strong people person, Boucher somehow mixes the traditional notions of player’s coach and demanding disciplinarian in the same way Mike Babcock does (two McGill grads, Mr. Boone). And, like Babcock, his players respond. He’s had playoff success at every level — in junior hockey, in minor pro last year at Hamilton, and helped win championships for Canada in international play. It’s safe to say no first-year coach has made this big an impact on the NHL in a very long time.
ADVANTAGE – Tampa Bay
Boston — Beating their biggest rival after trailing 2-0 (and they’ve won all their home games since), then sweeping the Flyers after last year’s collapse gives the B’s a confidence and a warrior spirit they’ve lacked in previous springs under Julien. Bergeron’s quick return would help, and that’s been hinted at. Thomas can steal any series. If they have early success against the Lightning’s 1-3-1, that will build on itself and their physical play could wear down Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay — With confidence of their own after a comeback win over the Penguins and sweep of the Caps, this team has a Cinderella quality to it. Plus they have some key Cup veterans on this team and a bit more knowledge of what it takes to go all the way than in Boston’s dressing room. Scotty Bowman always says playing a different system than everyone else can give a team an advantage, and if they can avoid the B’s disruptive pounding in the transition from defense to offense and then capitalize on the Bruins’ average speed in their own end and keep the puck there for extended periods, it will go a long way to dictating the run of play.