Bolts and B's shaking off rust
BOSTON -- Neither the Bruins nor the Lightning have suited up for a game since last Friday, making today Day 7 of the impromptu Eastern Conference spring break. Thanks to (yet another) three-game comeback in the West by the Red Wings, who eventually succumbed to San Jose on Thursday night, Boston and Tampa Bay have been suspended in a holding pattern for the last week.
"It's awkward to have this week off when you're playing in the playoffs. A part of you certainly just wants to keep going," Bruins goalie Tim Thomas said. "[But] it helped knowing that Tampa was actually in the same exact situation so that everything is going to be equal starting tomorrow."
Thomas recalled Boston's second-round series against Carolina in 2009, when the well-rested Bruins, who had swept Montreal, faced a Hurricanes team that had taken the New Jersey Devils to seven games.
"We'd been sitting and waiting, and they were in full playoff mode," he said. "It took us a while to catch up."
For this Eastern Conference Final, with both teams coming off upset sweeps, however, it might be a matter of catching up to fans' expectations. "I know the first couple shifts in the first period, guys are just going to try and get their legs back into it, their hands back into it. But once we do that, everything should go back to normal."
The legs might not be there from the start, but the brains will certainly have to be. In addition to the time to rest their bodies and recharge for what should be a physically demanding series, the hiatus perhaps more importantly has granted both teams and coaches ample time to prepare tactically.
Bruins head coach Claude Julien hasn't had a day off since his team swept up the Flyers and tossed them out along with some playoff demons. The hours may not be quite as long, he admits, but his sole focus hasn't wavered, and it's safe to assume that the point of focus has to be on cracking the Lightning's 1-3-1 forecheck.
Perhaps breaking down systems is overblown at this time of year, but Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher's stifling scheme, which is designed to clog up the neutral zone and take advantage of counterattack opportunities, wore down the Penguins and frustrated the Capitals, two of the East's top teams.
Now, the Bruins have had seven days to plan an attack on Boucher's "Diamond" forecheck. They're not keen on sharing their strategy, for obvious reasons, but the expectation is that they will force Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson to get involved in the play and to handle the puck, which isn't his strength. And the Bruins will need to stick to simplicity at all costs. Where the Capitals seemed to go awry especially was in their penchant for maneuvering through the neutral zone instead of barrelling through it, and in relying on skills over strategy. Boston may not have the eye-popping talent the Capitals do up front, but just the same, it will be the neutral zone where the Bruins' attack is made.
"It's not the first 1-3-1 that we've faced," Lucic says. "Montreal played sort of the same way.... It's important that we go up the ice together, make good chips and make it hard on them."
The responsibility of making it hard on the Lightning will rest with the Bruins' defense corps, the most physically formidable group Tampa Bay has faced this postseason. (At 5' 11" and 189 pounds, Andrew Ference would be considered the squirt among Boston's top six.) Hard up against captain Zdeno Chara, the Bruins' 6' 9" towering imposition, Tampa Bay's forwards won't have the same luxury, but the depth of skill the Lightning have exhibited up front continues to surprise. Role players such as Sean Bergenheim (7 goals) and Steve Downie (12 points) have proven that Tampa Bay isn't a one-line team, and its power play has been dominant, cashing in at a 26.7 percent rate against the league's top two penalty-killing teams.
But Tampa Bay has not historically had much success against the Bruins, particularly in Boston (only four wins in 35 games). In the last two games the Lightning played at TD Garden, they were outscored 10-2, but they insist those things don't matter especially at this time of year. What matters is what lies ahead.
It has been a long week of waiting for both teams. But on the eighth day, they will finally play.