By Stu Hackel
One of the most intriguing Conference Championships imaginable, this series will match the crashing, banging Bruins against the calculating, high-skilled Lightning. The styles may contrast, but each team comes in with a similar back story, having staged a first-round comeback, then swept their second round opponent. Each has some momentum and each is rested, so rust will have accumulated evenly, and each has a top goaltender. (For a Western Conference Final analysis, click here.)
Here's a look at how they match up in six main categories and who has the edge in each. You can draw your own conclusions on the outcome. We stand by our practice of making no predictions, as you never can tell what will happen in the playoffs, but if you insist on them, SI.com's Darren Eliot has some he'll venture:
Adrian Dater also has some thoughts on this series and a video of Brian Leetch's thoughts is embedded into Adrian's story.
Boston -- Right behind the Lightning and Sharks in playoff scoring (37 goals) and goals per game (3.36) as well as being the playoffs' best team 5-on-5 (31 goals), the Bruins may not have the elite level players that Tampa Bay has, but they make up for it with a strong top six and good depth. However, they enter the series without second line center Patrice Bergeron, who ranks sixth in playoff scoring, but is recuperating from a mild concussion suffered when he was checked by the Flyers' Claude Giroux in Game 4 (video) of their second round series. How long he'll be out is uncertain, but what the absence of his creativity and faceoff prowess will mean for the production of linemates Mark Recchi and Brad Marchand is unknown. Chris Kelly will move up from the third line, where he's done well with Rich Peverley and Michael Ryder. Peverley will now move to center, and rookie Tyler Seguin, who has yet to play in the postseason, will take that spot on the wing. But much of what the B's do offensively will hinge on the top line of David Krejci between Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton.
It took a while for this threesome to get going in the playoffs, which Krejci and Horton did before Lucic, who only found the net in the last game against Philly. The fourth line of Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton brings energy and their crashing style might help break down Tampa Bay's defenses. The big weapon on Boston's blueline is the mammoth shot of Zdeno Chara. Tomas Kaberle has yet to consistently display his offensive skills in a Boston uniform, but Johnny Boychuk has a good shot and Dennis Seidenberg makes a good first pass. Not known for his offense, Andrew Ference has contributed some timely plays this postseason. The Bruins can produce goals off the rush and while grinding it out along the boards, but they'll need a better plan to pierce Tampa's 1-3-1 than did the Capitals, whose dump and chase didn't work and they couldn't effectively skate through the neutral zone.
Tampa Bay -- Sharing the playoff lead in goals (38) with the Sharks but leading the league in goals per game (3.46), the Lightning not only boast some of the NHL's most dynamic forwards in Marty St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, a revived Vinny Lecavalier and Simon Gagne (when healthy), but have also gotten excellent contributions from lesser-knowns Teddy Purcell, Steve Downie, Sean Bergenheim and Dominik Moore. Coach Guy Boucher spreads them out well over his top three lines, and he's also got an experienced player who is capable of timely contributions in Ryan Malone. Their third line of Downie, Moore and Bergenheim flustered the Penguins and Capitals.
Gagne's return would allow the Lightning to dress 12 forwards (they went with 11 in his absence) and make their top six even more dangerous. They also have some good offensive talent on their defense corps, although it hasn't shown yet statistically, likely because Boucher has reined in his blueliners. Marc-Andre Bergeron has a great shot and makes a strong first pass, and veteran Eric Brewer and young Victor Hedman both have good offensive skills as well. If Pavel Kubina can return from the suspected concussion suffered when elbowed by Jason Chimera during the Washington series, he'd provide another big shot from the point. (He still hasn't resumed skating.) This is a quick strike offense that has good speed in transition and traps opposing defenders behind the play.
ADVANTAGE -- Tampa Bay, especially because of Patrice Bergeron's absence.
Boston -- Playing their rugged, typical style in all three zones, the B's have allowed the fewest goals among the teams remaining the playoffs. Coach Claude Julien is a defense-first coach, and his clubs usually play a responsible game without the puck. Chara can dominate a game merely with his size, and no one on Tampa Bay is his equal, although he's seemed less than 100 percent since his first round bout of dehydration. The Bruins' extended rest should help him. He's been paired with Dennis Seidenberg, Boston's best shotblocker (tied for fourth most in the playoffs), and they've formed a formidable shutdown duo. The rest of the B's blueline corps, with the exception of Kaberle, can play a hard game and it is complimented by forwards who are not reluctant to take the body at every opportunity. Their biggest problems are 1) refraining from being overly physical in order to stay out of the penalty box, and 2) a lack of mobility (or a penchant for not moving their feet, depending on your orientation) that can be exposed by quicker forwards. That happened against both Montreal and Philadelphia, and the Bruins have allowed over 34 shots per game (a high number that is somewhat skewed because of the four overtime games they've played), but goalie Tim Thomas has been the great equalizer in those situations. Large rookie defenseman Adam McQuaid, who had played effectively, injured his neck while missing a check against the Flyers' Mike Richards and crashing into the endboards. It's expected that he'll be back for Game 1.
Tampa Bay -- As their dismantling of the Capitals showed, this is the most underrated part of Tampa Bay's game. With the Lightning, it's all about Boucher's 1-3-1 scheme, a modified version of the neutral zone trap that clogs up the middle of the ice, making it difficult to attack with speed (and here's an excellent video presentation of it). It has worked well enough to tie the Bruins for fewest goals-against among the final four teams. It masks whatever deficiencies the Bolts have in their defense corps, but while that group is not considered particularly strong, it works fine within the system, and not as badly as detractors believe. Since Brewer arrived in February, the Bolts have cut their goals -against average by a full goal per game, from just over 3 to just over 2. Boucher deployed the tandem of Brewer and Mattias Ohlund against Alex Ovechkin in the last round with young Hedman (who has played his best hockey ever this spring) and the improved veteran Brett Clark as the effective backup. The consistent play of Mike Lundin has been another plus. Bergeron has always had defensive deficiencies, but he's been spotted well by the coaches. The Lightning have blocked more shots than any team in the postseason and their top four defenders rank in the top five on the leader board. They've also been getting good two-way play from their forwards and following Boucher's system has reaped great rewards, so they've bought in. The Bolts have allowed over 35 shots per game, but that's a somewhat misleading figure because they allow opponents low percentage shots that goalie Dwayne Roloson gobbles up.
ADVANTAGE -- Even
Boston -- Very simply, no one is playing goal better than Tim Thomas this spring. Like his team, he has gotten better as the tournament has gone on. While he barely trails Roloson in the key stats of goals-against average (2.03 to 2.01) and save percentage (.941 to .937), he has allowed almost no leaky tallies since the early stages of the Montreal series. Time and again he's bailed out his team in tough spots with amazing saves. His remarkable dexterity and reflexes not only allow him to make all the saves he should, but many that he shouldn't, and that's the mark of an exceptional goalie. His value to his team is incalculable and if he continues to exhibit this form and the B's advance to the Cup final, he'll be a strong Conn Smythe candidate.
Tampa Bay -- Pretty close to equal with Thomas this spring, Roloson is the perfect goalie for Boucher's system. He plays a technically sound game and allows very little to get through him. He's been to the Cup final before and knows the territory. The rap on him was that he had lost some of his mobility with age, but if so, he's been able to compensate with better efficiency. Unlike his predecessors, he's given the Lightning confidence to push the play offensively with the knowledge that he'll be there at the other end. Like Thomas, he is capable of the spectacular save when the defenses breaks down in front of him. Also, like Thomas, he plays better under pressure and has raised his game in the playoffs. He has excellent leadership skills, despite his cranky old man image that has Tampa Bay fans buying Roloson "Get off my lawn" T-shirts. He also could be a Conn Smythe candidate should the Bolts advance.
ADVANTAGE -- Boston (but not by much)
Boston -- If the Bruins have had an Achilles' heel this spring, it's here. Their power play was miserable in the first two rounds, only 2-for-37, with those two goals coming late in the second round, one on a 5-on-3. Kaberle has not been the missing ingredient hoped for when he was acquired from Toronto. He's just been missing in action. B's fans have to hope that late success against the Flyers carries over, but the Lightning penalty kill could extend Boston's futility. The Bruins' PK has allowed eight goals in 41 kills, or 80.5 percent, which is not terrible, but it ranks lowest among the four remaining teams, and Boston won't have Bergeron, at least at the outset, for either the PK or the PP. Krejci will take his spot on the PK and hopefully those elevated minutes won't take a toll on him at full strength. They'd be wise to stay out of the penalty box and focus on full strength hockey.
Tampa Bay -- With 12 power play goals in 11 games, the Lightning lead the playoffs in extra-man goals and own the best percentage (26.7) of the remaining teams. The power play is a Boucher specialty, and was his calling card to the big time, first in 2006 as Team Canada's special teams coach for Under-18s and later at the World Junior Championships. He has lots of weapons: one-timers by Stamkos or Lecavalier, the mobility of St. Louis, the sniping of Gagne, the blasts from the point by Bergeron, the net presence of Malone and more.
Tampa Bay's PK is also the best of the remaining teams, having killed 51 of 54 advantages, a staggering 94.4 percent. Moore, Bergenheim, Adam Hall and Nate Thompson do a fine job up front when a man short and it's here that the shotblocking D really stands out. Assistant coach Wayne Fleming masterminded the Bolts' PK. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, he had surgery early this month and hasn't been with the club much recently. But his illness is giving the club extra motivation.
ADVANTAGE -- Tampa Bay
Boston -- A veteran of five previous postseason appearances, Claude Julien has never taken an NHL team this far in the playoffs. He also coached the Hull Olympiques to the Memorial Cup championship in 1996-97. His defensive style works well in postseason play, but his critics charge that he is tactically inflexible (citing his unwillingness to overhaul a power play that has struggled all season) and perhaps overly loyal (he's had Michael Ryder with him off and on since their days with Hull and resisted calls to bench Ryder when he was slumping. (He was proven right in the first round.) His players credit him with remaining calm and confident when Boston fell behind Montreal 2-0 in the opening round, and that demeanor helped them turn the series in their favor. There's not much in the NHL that he hasn't seen, but how he navigates Boucher's scheme will be his biggest challenge.
Tampa Bay -- Not afraid to be different or flexible, Guy Boucher has won over his players and impressed observers with his innovative system, tireless preparation and motivational tactics, which have borne obvious fruit this spring. If his in-season transformation of an offense-happy club into a more well-rounded group didn't fully penetrate the collective consciousness of the hockey world, it certainly should have by now. Highly educated, averse to routine and considered a strong people person, Boucher somehow mixes the traditional notions of player's coach and demanding disciplinarian in the same way that Detroit's Mike Babcock does. And, like Babcock, his players respond. Boucher has had playoff success at every level -- in junior hockey and minor pro and helped win championships for Canada in international play. It's safe to say no first-year coach has made this big an impact on the NHL in a very long time.
ADVANTAGE - Tampa Bay
Boston -- Beating their biggest rival Montreal after trailing 2-0 (they've won all their home games since), then sweeping the Flyers after last year's collapse gives the B's a confidence and a warrior spirit they've lacked in previous springs under Julien. Bergeron's quick return would help. Thomas can steal any series. If the Bruins have early success against the Lightning's 1-3-1, that will build on itself and their physical play could wear down Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay -- With confidence of their own after a comeback win over the Penguins and a sweep of the Caps, this team has a Cinderella quality to it. Plus it has some key Cup veterans and a bit more knowledge than Boston has of what it takes to go all the way. Playing an unusual system can give a team an advantage and if the Lightning can avoid the B's disruptive pounding in the transition from defense to offense and then capitalize on Boston's average speed in their own end and keep the puck there for extended periods, it will go a long way toward dictating the run of play. ADVANTAGE: Even