The fifth seeded Tampa Bay lightning will open the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday night versus the third seeded Boston Bruins at TD Garden. In short, both of these teams deserve to be here and trying to pick a winner is nearly impossible.
The Bruins, coming off a sweep of Philadelphia, are in the conference finals for the first time since 1992. Boston has won seven of their last eight playoff games and is gunning for their first Stanley Cup since 1972.
The Lightning swept the Washington Capitals in the semifinals and is in the conference finals for the first time since 2004 when they won the Stanley Cup. The Bolts have won seven straight and are on a roll.
Both teams won 46 games and accumulated 103 points during the regular season. The Lightning scored just one more goal than the Bruins.
Both teams have red-hot goalies who have found the Fountain of Youth. Boston’s 37 year old netminder Tim Thomas and Tampa Bay’s 41 year old backstop Dwayne Roloson have helped their teams to a playoff leading team goals against average of 2.18.
Roloson has been a wall for the Bolts, posting a 2.01 goals against average and a NHL leading .941 save percentage. Thomas, the front runner for the Vezina Trophy, has a 2.03 goals against average and a .937 save percentage in the playoffs.
Tampa Bay and Boston have scored 38 and 37 goals, respectively, in the playoffs, good enough for first and second in the league.
Each team had to come from behind in their first round series and then, swept their higher seeded second round opponents.
Many will look to the Bruins 3-1 regular season record against the Lightning as the deciding factor in picking the Bruins, but Boston did not face Dwayne Roloson in any of the four games, nor did they face the much improved Lightning blue line corps. bolstered by the arrival of Eric Brewer and the emergence of young Victor Hedman.
The Lightning has allowed two or less goals in six of their eleven playoff games. While Roloson has been brilliant, one cannot overstate the amazing turnaround of the defense. Tampa Bay, who was near the bottom of moat of the defensive statistics during the regular season, now finds itself near the top of the rankings in the post-season. That being said, the loss of Pavel Kubina who didn’t make the trip to Boston due to injury, will hurt the Bolts badly.
Boston’s defense is led by the hockey Goliath Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk. This group is big and ‘bad’. They were the second ranked defense in the NHL regular season and have continued to dominate their opponents in the playoffs. They are physical and pushed the Lightning around during their four regular season meetings.
The series may turn on special teams. The Lightning has a decided advantage in this area. The Bolts sixth ranked regular season power play has been even better in the postseason going 12 for 35 good for success 26.7% of the time. Tampa Bay’s penalty kill is a near perfect 51 of 53 (94.4%).
On the other hand, Boston’s postseason power play has been anemic, going 2 for 37 for a trifling 5.4% success rate. The Bruins penalty kill unit has been successful only 33 of 41 times for a substandard 80.5%.
This is going to be a defensive battle, dominated by the goalies despite no shortage of offensive talent on each side: Stars Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos leading the Bolts and Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic and David Krejci for the Bruins. Tampa Bay is tops in the post-season in goals per game at 3.46 and the Bruins are third at 3.36. It looks like Bruins forward and leading playoff point getter Patrice Bergeron will miss the first two series games. This will certainly slow down Boston’s offense.
While the experts have justifiably heaped high praise on Tampa Bay’s so-called grinders like Sean Bergenheim, Steve Downie, Nate Thompson and Dominic Moore, the on and off ice influence of old guard leaders Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, Simon Gagne, Dwayne Roloson and Pavel Kubina cannot be underestimated. There are eleven Lightning players who are seeing the playoffs for the first time. In just two rounds, they have learned important lessons from these grizzled veterans that will carry forward into the Eastern Conference finals and beyond.
Boston has a veteran group, but very few have experienced any real playoff success except for former Bolt Mark Recchi, who won Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh (1991) and Carolina (2006).
In short, this is a battle of two teams that are balanced on offense, stingy on defense and magnificent between the pipes.
Who ya got puckheads?
Eastern Conference Finals Schedule
Game 1 – Saturday 5/14 @ Boston 8pm VERSUS
Game 2 – Tuesday 5/17 @ Boston 8pm VERSUS
Game 3 – Thursday 5/19 @ Tampa Bay 8pm VERSUS
Game 4 – Saturday 5/21 @ Tampa Bay 1:30pm NBC
*Game 5 – Monday 5/23 @ Boston 8pm VERSUS
*Game 6 – Wednesday 5/25 @ Tampa Bay 8pm VERSUS
*Game 7 – Friday 5/27 @ Boston 8pm VERSUS
(* if needed)
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About the Author: WB Philp is a published hockey writer who has a built in disdain for Barry Melrose. He covered the Detroit sports teams for many years until he came to his senses and moved to the Sunshine State. He is a true puckhead on a mission from God (Gordie Howe) to make hockey relevant in the south. He lives in Hockey Bay USA and covers the Lightning full time. Did I mention he hates Barry Melrose?