Boston is trying to claim the Cup for the first time in 39 years, and the Bruins are back in the conference finals for the first time since 1992. The next year was Tampa Bay's first in the NHL, and the Lightning are in the conference finals for the first time since winning the Cup in 2004.
The Bruins won the season series, taking three of the four games. None of those games came with Dwayne Roloson in net, and Tampa Bay's prized mid-season acquisition has made the Lightning a dangerous opponent.
The Lightning have won seven games in a row, rallying from a 3-1 deficit against Pittsburgh and then sweeping Washington. Tampa Bay has also won five straight road games in the postseason, while Boston dropped the first two at home against Montreal in the first round.
Both teams have key players who could miss time with injuries, while the series will feature a pair of famous college teammates -- Tim Thomas and Martin St. Louis both rose from obscurity to NHL stardom despite being largely overlooked after successful careers at the University of Vermont.
The Boston Bruins have shown incredible scoring depth in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
In Round 1, it was first-liner Nathan Horton and the third line of Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly and Michael Ryder that did the majority of the damage. In the second round, a stunning four-game sweep of Philadelphia, first-line center David Krejci was the star, scoring the game-winning goal in each of the first three games. Top-line winger Milan Lucic, showing signs of coming out of his playoff-long funk, had two goals Friday night, his first in 20 games dating back to regular season.
The Bruins forwards are also among the most responsible when it comes to defense. The third line, mentioned above, is particularly strong and can be used in a checking role when necessary. But, Boston coach Claude Julien prefers to go power against power, a philosophy that served him well in the Philadelphia series.
Boston does have a problem up front, however. No. 2 center Patrice Bergeron, who leads the team with 12 points, suffered a mild concussion in Game 4 against Philadelphia and will likely not be ready for the start of the series against Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay's "Big Three" of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier have done their part (Lecavalier was particularly impressive in the second round), but what has propelled the Lightning to unexpected heights is the depth up front. Sean Bergenheim leads the team with 7 goals, while Steve Downie and Teddy Purcell have been point-per-game guys in the playoffs after combining for a total of 83 in the regular season.
Toss in some solid work from Ryan Malone, Dominic Moore and Nate Thompson and the Lightning dominated the supposedly deeper and more talented Washington Capitals at this position. Simon Gagne was injured in the middle of the Washington series but could return to face the Bruins. The one guy who hasn't really performed up to expectations is Stamkos, but saying that a guy with 4 goals and 6 points in 11 games while still playing solid defense is underachieving is a pretty good barometer of how successful Tampa Bay has been.
Boston has slowly morphed into a four-man defensive rotation in these playoffs, especially after youngster Adam McQuaid suffered a neck injury in Game 2 against the Flyers.
Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, paired together after Game 2 of the Montreal series, have been utterly dominant since. Chara, who missed Game 2 of the first round with dehydration issues, is a whopping plus-11 and had two big goals in a Game 3 win against Philadelphia. Seidenberg is a plus-9, after starting with a minus-4 rating after two games of the playoffs, and has six points. Each player is averaging more than 28 minutes of ice per game.
The second pair has evolved into reliable veteran Andrew Ference and the up-and-coming Johnny Boychuk, who has been among the most physical of the Bruin defensemen. Boychuk also scored the winning goal in game 4 against Philadelphia.
In fact, Boston has used its defense to create offense all playoffs. In 11 games, Boston defensemen have 6 goals and 18 assists. Veteran Tomas Kaberle, obtained to help with the power play, does not see a regular shift at even strength anymore. Instead, he is spotted where play dictates. Shane Hnidy, McQuaid’s replacement, plays less than four minutes a game.
According to Boston coach Claude Julien, McQuaid is making significant improvement and could be ready to rejoin the lineup soon.
Coach Guy Boucher has decided to primarily go with seven defensemen and 11 forwards during this postseason. His top three defensemen -- Eric Brewer, Mattias Ohlund and Victor Hedman -- have been terrific. Brewer and Ohlund have formed Boucher's go-to pairing and did a great job of stifling Washington's top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble.
Hedman also played well against the Capitals. Tampa Bay lost Pavel Kubina to an upper-body injury, and there is no timetable for his return. Brett Clark struggled in Game 1 against Washington but was better in the next three games. Marc-Andre Bergeron helps out on the power play, and Randy Jones looked pretty good after coming into the lineup when Kubina went out. He had just missed two months with an injury.
Tampa Bay could use Kubina back in the lineup, but the top four have been strong and Boucher has been able to spot the others effectively.
Tim Thomas has been unbelievable. In the Philadelphia series, he stopped 142 of the 149 shots fired at him – and he made his biggest saves when they counted most. He almost singlehandedly stole the Game 2 victory against the Flyers, keeping the Bruins in a game in which they were badly outplayed before Krejci scored the overtime winner against the run of play.
For the playoffs, Thomas has a .937 save percentage and a 2.03 goals-against average. The veteran goalie allowed just 4 goals in the final three games of the series against Philadelphia. He has won eight of his past nine starts.
Not surprisingly, his teammates have complete faith in Thomas and, as a result, tend to be a bit more aggressive, knowing they have a goalie that can bail them out of a jam.
If Thomas hasn't been the best goaltender in the playoffs to this point, it is because Dwayne Roloson might edge him out for that distinction. Roloson leads the League with a .941 save percentage and a 2.01 goals against average. Putting up those numbers against Sidney Crobsy- and Evgeni Malkin-less Pittsburgh is one thing, but Roloson thwarted Washington's attack -- especially early in the series when the Capitals were controlling the play for most of the contests.
If there was any concern about rest for Roloson because he played seven games in 12 days, they have probably been eased thanks to the sweep. He will have had plenty of rest by the time the series with the Bruins begins. Boucher probably could have gone with backup Mike Smith in Game 4 with a 3-0 series lead and playing on back-to-back days, but the coach has plenty of trust in Roloson and said there will be time for him to rest in the offseason.
Claude Julien has shown his worth in each series. Against Montreal, he saved his team from going off the cliff after it fell behind 2-0 in the series to hated Montreal. His calm demeanor allowed the team to regroup. But, he also made some strategic decisions – uniting Chara and Seidenberg – to turn the tide in that series.
Against Philadelphia, he refused to buy into the revenge storyline the media was peddling and, as a result, his team was as business-like and focused as possible in a series that could have easily spiraled out of control given the recent history between these teams.
His in-game chops will be severely tested in this round, however, if Bergeron is on the shelf for an extended period.
Boucher has earned plenty of plaudits for helping this team to the conference finals, and deservedly so. His decision to stick with Roloson instead of offering rest looked like a good one -- the team earned its veteran goaltender plenty of rest by finishing the Capitals in four games.
He's been using 11 forwards and seven defensemen, and by doing so it allows him to be creative with his forward lines. No unit is set, though Boucher has some combinations that he likes (Purcell and Lecavalier, Bergenheim, Moore and Downie, the "Big Three" together). It gives him a lot of flexibility to mix and match.
Boucher's system has also received plenty of attention. His 1-3-1 has frustrated opponents, and it allows the Lightning to counterattack and create lots of odd-man rushes.
Simply, the Bruins were atrocious on the power play to start these playoffs. They didn’t score their first power-play goal until the dying seconds of game 3 against Philadelphia and that was on a 5-on-3 in a blowout. In fact, they are the only team in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to win a seven-game series (against Montreal) without the benefit of a power-play goal.
Boston scored a power-play goal to open Game 4 against Philadelphia and the unit has shown some signs of life, but it is still a brutal 2-for-37 with a shorthanded goal against. Fortunately, the penalty kill has been much better for Boston, killing a little more than 80 percent of its man-disadvantage situations. Boston’s PK seemed to get stronger as the Philadelphia series continued.
Tampa Bay's ability to kill penalties deserves to be level with Boucher's defensive system as the biggest reasons why the Lightning have been so tough to play against. They are 51 of 54 through two rounds, and the 94.4 percent success rate is tops among the eight clubs that advanced beyond the conference semifinals.
The Lightning's power play is also the best among the final eight teams in the tournament at 26.7 percent (12-for-45). St. Louis is the creator, while Stamkos and Lecavalier are dynamite shooters. Malone's presence is felt most here, given his ability to clog up space in front of the goaltender and also to win puck battles to keep the play alive.
Tyler Seguin, Bruins -- The prized rookie has not dressed yet for a playoff game, but will likely be inserted into the lineup if Bergeron is sidelined for Game 1 and beyond. Seguin has the raw skills to be a game-breaker, but has also struggled to perform in tight quarters and during highly physical play. He will run into plenty of both in this series. If he finds an answer, the Bruins shouldn’t miss a beat.
Steve Downie, Lightning -- St. Louis was the star in Round One against Pittsburgh, and Bergenheim was the guy against Washington in Round Two, but Downie has been incredibly consistent for the Lightning. He was suspended for a game, but otherwise has been able to produce offensively while playing with both the team's stars and in a checking-line role. His agitation skills might come in handy against a Boston team that can try to get a little too physical at times.
Bruins will win if... their depth up front pays off. As good as Tampa Bay has been, the Lightning have not faced a team as deep as Boston up front. Boston goes three lines deep with scoring threats and presents numerous matchup difficulties for opposing teams. If all there lines continue to generate chances, Tampa Bay’s defense will be asked questions it has yet had to answer.
Lightning will win if ... Roloson doesn't wear down and the forwards keep scoring. Tampa Bay's top guys are better than Boston's, but the Lightning will need the role players to continue to chip in. Tampa Bay could dominate this series on special teams, so staying with Boston at even strength might be the key to returning to the Cup Final for the first time in seven years.
the man advantage.