BOSTON -- After more than a week of rest for both teams, the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning will take the ice Saturday night for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at TD Garden.
Boston is hoping to return to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1990. Tampa Bay is looking for its first trip since winning its only Cup seven years ago. Both teams needed seven games to fend off a pesky first-round opponent before surprisingly sweeping through the second round.
Both teams will welcome back players who had time to heal during the break. This is the first time in the conference finals for both coaches, and how the NHL veteran Claude Julien will match strategies with newcomer Guy Boucher has been a popular topic of discussion in the days leading to Game 1.
Here's a look at three pressing questions for each club as Game 1 is finally here:
Will Boston lose the faceoff war without Patrice Bergeron?
While everyone talks about the offensive wizardry and leadership skills of Bergeron, who will miss Game 1 with a concussion, Boston might miss his prowess in the faceoff circle more than anything. In the last round against the Flyers, Boston used total control on draws to gain possession of the puck and keep Philadelphia chasing the play instead of creating offense.
"Faceoffs are a real important element of the game, whether to prevent a goal or whether to make sure you start with the puck," coach Claude Julien said during the layoff between rounds. "Right now we've lost our best faceoff guy. I think it's going to be up the other centermen to really buckle down.
"Having said that, in order to win faceoffs you need everybody in there. ... It's up to the other guys to make sure they win the battles and pounce on that loose puck" when faceoffs aren't won cleanly."
Clearly, nobody expects any of the Bruins' other centers to win at the 62 percent rate Bergeron rang up through the first two rounds, but they must at least stay around 50 percent, if not a bit better, to slow down Tampa Bay's potent offense.
Have the Bruins solved their power-play woes?
Boston was not good on the power play in the first two rounds. Against Montreal, in the first round, the Bruins became the first team in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs to win a seven-game series without scoring a man-advantage goal. They scored two power-play goals in the sweep of Philadelphia, but the first one came on a 5-on-3 advantage late in an already-decided Game 3.
Clearly, Boston's man-advantage disadvantage is the team's biggest bugaboo right now -- one that could be made markedly worse by the Lightning, the best penalty-killing team in the playoffs.
"We like the way our power play handled themselves the last two games compared to the others. You have to stay, again, optimistic that they are going to continue doing the job," Julien said. "Our penalty killers are going to have to do a great job because the power play has been pretty successful so far in the playoffs."
By the way, Tampa Bay is clicking at a 26.7 rate on the power play this postseason.
How patient will Julien be with his reconfigured lines?
The Bruins haven't seen two of their lines for Game 1 against Tampa Bay in action yet. In the wake of the injury to Bergeron, Chris Kelly has been moved to center the second line and Tyler Seguin has been Inserted as the third-line right wing, moving Michael Ryder to the left side. The lines have looked good in practice, but nobody knows how they will perform in game conditions.
If they struggle early, will Julien blow this plan up in a search for more consistent offense?
"I don't approach the game with negativity, if you don't score a goal. We're going to score goals," he said. "That's my first and foremost thing. But I hear what you're saying, and I think we have to understand that we have other options. I've talked about that, of other players moving in and moving around. And I'm ready to do that."
How will Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher plan for Zdeno Chara?
Boston's towering defenseman will likely be on the ice for close to half the game, and his ability to take long shifts often makes it tough for opposing teams to hold their top players back when he's on the ice. Boucher said he doesn't want his top players sitting on the bench because he's trying to find the right matchup.
Boucher's best weapon against Chara is his willingness to be flexible with the lineup. He often mixes and matches his lines, leaving one together if it is playing well but often sending different trios out each time through the line rotation. He can put his "Big Three" of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier on the ice together, or he can mix in guys like Simon Gagne, Ryan Malone, Steve Downie and Teddy Purcell to spread the offensive wealth.
Boucher sees Montreal as a similar team, and the Canadiens had some success with their speedy forwards against the physical Bruins' defense led by Chara. Look for the Lightning to try to counterattack often and force Chara to cover lots of ground.
"It's going to be a challenge, and I think we're ready for it," Stamkos said. "He's obviously a great defenseman in this league. He's a great shutdown guy. What makes him good other than his obvious size and physicality is his long stick. You think you have a step on him, then comes that seven-foot stick knocking the puck out of the way."
What can Tampa Bay do to solve Tim Thomas?
The Lightning don't have to face the goaltender with the best postseason statistics -- that would be the guy patrolling their own net, Dwayne Roloson. But Thomas' numbers are just behind Roloson's, and the likely Vezina Trophy winner presents an even bigger challenge than Marc-Andre Fleury or Michal Neuvirth did in the first two rounds.
Thomas is unorthodox, so trying to pinpoint tendencies could be tough because of his freestyling ways. The keys to beating him aren't all that different than anyone else -- pucks to the net, traffic, rebounds, etc. Maybe the most important thing, as pointed out Friday by Stamkos, is not to yield the psychological advantage. Thomas is the type of goalie who will frustrate opponents to the point of affecting performance. The Lightning must not let missed chances or great saves lead to poor decisions.
"He's a competitor. We have to compete," Martin St. Louis said. "If you just think you're going to throw shots from the outside with nobody at the net, hope it goes in, you're mistaken. We got to have people there. We've watched enough playoff hockey, been part of playoff hockey, a lot of goals happen because pucks are thrown at net with people there. We just have to battle. We know he's a battler and we're going to have to battle him."
What impact will the return of Simon Gagne have?
Gagne has not played since being knocked out of Game 1 against Washington when his head hit the ice after a check by Scott Hannan. He said he would have played if the series with the Capitals had gone longer, but the 10-day layoff between rounds has probably helped him more than any player for the Lightning.
Gagne gives the Lightning another swift skater to deploy against the physical Bruins. Tampa Bay's depth at forward has been a strength, and adding a healthy Gagne gives the Bolts a clear advantage at that position in this series. He'll likely start the game on the top power-play unit as well. Given that he's the team's most experienced postseason skater, don't be surprised if he has a big impact.