BOSTON -- After six wildly entertaining games in the Eastern Conference Finals, virtually nothing separates the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Tampa Bay has scored 21 goals, Boston has 20. Each team has won a game on the road. Each team has overcome in-game deficits. Each team has survived meltdowns by their rock-solid goalies -- Tim Thomas for Boston and Dwayne Roloson for Tampa Bay.
As a result, we have the most magical of moments in Stanley Cup Playoff hockey -- a Game 7.
The teams will meet Friday at TD Garden (8 p.m. ET; Versus, CBC, RDS) to decide which one is better -- even if it will only be by a hair -- in this series.
The winner will advance to play the Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, opening that series in Vancouver next Wednesday. The loser gets to spend a too-long summer ruminating on what could have been.
So who will win? We don't know. That's what the 60 -- or maybe more -- minutes Friday will determine. But we can tell you who owns the advantage -- if anyone -- in some key areas heading into what should be an unforgettable game on Friday.
Tampa Bay: The Lightning are loaded up front, blessed with star power and depth, as well as plenty of skill and grit to play as the game dictates. The “Big Three” -- Vinny Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos -- were great in Game 6. The Lightning could be missing top depth guy Sean Bergenheim, but Teddy Purcell has 5 goals in this series, and veterans like Ryan Malone and Simon Gagne have performed well in big moments.
Boston: After struggling to find its offense early in the postseason, Boston has put up at least three goals in half of the six games against Tampa Bay. However, the Bruins' forwards have to be more consistent. Milan Lucic, the team's top goal scorer in the regular season with 30 goals, has just 3 this postseason. Boston has not displayed the depth scoring that has carried Tampa Bay to this point and lacks the quick-strike capabilities that the Lightning have displayed so often this series.
Tampa Bay: Depth on defense was supposed to be Tampa Bay’s biggest weakness, but the third pairing of Marc-Andre Bergeron and Mike Lundin have played pretty well against the Bruins. The guys in the top four have not always been as good as they need to be, though. That first outlet pass to break past the Bruins’ forecheck has been a huge key -- when the defensemen are clicking the team gets odd-man chances -- and when they aren’t Boston has controlled the play. The Lightning have also gotten very little offense from the back end of late.
Boston: This is where the Bruins have the biggest advantage in this series. Their top pairing of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg plays more than 28 minutes a game and has done an excellent job of keeping Tampa Bay's Big Three of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos in check during even-strength play. Andrew Ference is an underrated No. 3, but Johnny Boychuk has seen his strong start fade. He was on the ice for all five Lightning goals in Game 6.
Tampa Bay: Dwayne Roloson was the best goaltender in the postseason statistically in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but he’s been a bit off at times in this series. He’s been pulled twice, sat out Game 5 in favor of backup Mike Smith and allowed 4 goals on 20 shots in Game 6. He did produce a 36-save shutout in Game 7 against Pittsburgh in the opening round.
Tampa Bay: Claude Julien has complained about Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher complimenting the Bruins players too much and was not happy with Boucher’s comments about the officials before Game 6. Given how the first two postseason series went, this is the norm for Boucher, who is happy to deflect pressure from his players.
Boston: Claude Julien doesn't get much credit for the things he has done with the Bruins in this series. While Guy Boucher is more demonstrative and approachable, Julien quietly has led his team through several potential minefields this postseason. Coming back from a 0-2 deficit against Montreal in the first round with a clutch Game 7 win is one thing that springs to mind. Keeping his team on an even keel through a second-round series with Philadelphia that was filled with potential pratfalls is another. This round, he has dealt with the injury to Patrice Bergeron and the benching of the popular Shawn Thornton with aplomb.
Tampa Bay: The Lightning had the top power-play proficiency and the top penalty-killing percentage of any team that made the second round before this series. The penalty kill has continued to be great, while the power play went dormant for a few games but woke up in a big way in Game 6. If the Lightning have that big an advantage on special teams in Game 7, they’ll be enjoying some fine Vancouver cuisine in a few days.
Boston: If the Bruins lose this series, special teams will be a big reason. Tampa Bay won Game 6 mainly on the superiority of its power play, which scored on its first three chances. However, Boston's penalty kill had been excellent in the previous three games. No, it is their anemic power play that is Boston's problem. The team is just 5-for-61 this postseason and has managed just three power-play goals in six games against the Lightning. Too often, Boston's futility on the man-advantage has given Tampa Bay unexpected life -- see Games 4 and 6.
Tampa Bay: Three reasons for Tampa Bay to believe: 1) Roloson is now 7-0 in his career in elimination games, including 4-0 this season. 2) Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis are 3-0 in Game 7s, winning both the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final in seven games in 2004 and the series win against Pittsburgh in the opening round this spring. 3) Simon Gagne is a Boston killer -- he has 7 goals in his past 10 postseason games against the Bruins, including the game-winner in Game 7 last season with Philadelphia.
Boston: Boston has the most import intangible of all -- home-ice advantage. There have been five Game 7s this postseason and the home team has won four of them. That advantage, though, is neutralized by Boston's somewhat uneven performance in recent Game 7s. The pain of last year's Game 7 in the conference semifinals against the Flyers, in which Philadelphia finished its historic four-game rally, still lingers for this team.