By Stu Hackel
It's sorta our job here to make sense of playoff games, but sometimes they just don't make sense. With the Bruins-Lightning series now down to a best-of-three contest and Game 5 in Boston tonight, we know even less about how this might play out than we did at the beginning of the round. How is that possible? These teams are supposed to reveal themselves in the course of the games. But the only revelations we've had are that these teams' supposed strengths don't seem particularly strong at the moment. It's made for great, and sometimes exhilarating hockey, but you'd be a fool to say you know what's going to happen next.
So here comes Tim Thomas, the best goalie in hockey (although he's hardly playing like it) and one of our favorite guys to watch in the NHL, saying of tonight's tilt, "Yeah, we're going to win." He made that prediction after Game 4, in which his team fell apart after leading 3-0. The Lightning's comeback was sparked by Thomas's giveaway, which some observers are thinking could be the turning point of the entire series and that in itself seems like a fool's prediction. The turning point in Game 4, sure, but the series?
One thing we can say about this Eastern matchup is that while the momentum swings have been profound (especially because the Lightning have shown that they can score multiple goals in short spans of time), their play can also vaporize in an instant. There is little carryover in momentum from game to game and even period to period. When there is carryover, it doesn't seem to last very long. Is it because the team in control takes its foot off the gas pedal? Is it because the team that is trailing kicks its play into the next gear and leapfrogs the leader? Some of both? It's tough to know when the two top defensive teams in the postseason suffer the breakdowns and turnovers that the Bruins and Lightning have displayed, and when the two best goalies in the playoffs have allowed 15 and 13 goals respectively in four games.
Boston looked so in control of the proceedings in Game 3 that some were ready to hand the Bruins a free pass to the Stanley Cup Final. That feeling could only be reinforced early in Game 4. The B's forced three Tampa Bay turnovers and scored three quick strike goals to take a 3-0 first period and chase Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson for the second time in three games. Things looked rosy for the black and gold. Then, in the second period, it all turned to mush for them in a matter of a minute. It was the Teddy Purcell minute...
...in which Thomas flubbed the handoff to Zdeno Chara behind the net on the first goal. Simon Gagne made a smart read and jumped in to get the puck and quickly pass to Purcell for his first goal. Then the Lighting worked the puck around too quickly for the B's and Purcell found the soft spot in their coverage, creating the time and space to wrist a shot past Thomas on the glove side.
Suddenly, Tampa Bay grabbed control and you sensed they were going to get the equalizer, which they did three minutes later, courtesy of Sean Bergenheim (video) -- yes, him again -- who finished a Tampa counter-attack that began with a David Krejci turnover.
With more turnovers than the Pillsbury factory, these teams are making their coaches crazy, not to mention their fans. It is wildly uncharacteristic, but so much of this series has been unexpected that it's hard to figure out what might happen tonight.
So let's try to pinpoint a few things to watch for in Game 5. Probably none of them will matter, given how bizarre this series has been, but here goes anyway:
First, the Lightning abandoned their more passive 1-3-1, which didn't work for them in Game 3, and were more aggressive all over the ice in Game 4. You can expect that aggression to continue with a hard forecheck as the Bolts try to outman the Bruins at the point of attack, clog up the neutral zone, slow Boston's play, and forcing the B's to dump the puck in. The Bruins are expecting all that, but where they dump it in and how they fight to get it back will be pivotal in their attack.
Also, watch the area in front of Thomas. The Lightning went hard to the net from the outset in Game 4 and it's quite possible that he was rattled. The B's will likely not let Tampa Bay forwards get in that close without some confrontation.
The Bruins need better play out of their top line. Lucic, Krejci and Nathan Horton did very little to help their team in Game 4, and a good amount to hurt it. There's some thought that Krejci was injured on this Game 3 hit by Marc-Andre Bergeron.
It was a clean hit, not worthy of the elbowing call that was assessed. Regardless, it could be that Krejci is playing hurt. He's the catalyst for that trio, so pay attention to how successful he is in winning puck battles and distributing it to his linemates.
Watch how each team does on face-offs. The winning team in each of the first four games has dominated the face-off circle by roughly a 60-40 advantage. Winning face-offs means puck possession. Having the puck (and losing it) is critical to the fortunes of these clubs.
Two defensemen you might focus on are Tampa Bay's young Victor Hedman and Boston's veteran Tomas Kaberle. Hedman had a strong first two rounds, but he's been shaky in this series. You don't have to be a young player to turn over the puck, but it's how you respond afterward that counts. Young players sometimes don't have experience to lean on as a remedy. Hedman may be starting to show his age. Kaberle has become something of a whipping boy among the Bruins media and fans. Claude Julien gave him a strong vote of confidence today after the morning skate, but the veteran has had his rough spots, too, and Julien would be happier if he smoothed them out quickly.
Who's in goal for Tampa Bay? There's speculation that Roloson will give way to Mike Smith as the Game 5 starter. Guy Boucher has strongly hinted that Roloson will be back in there, but some observers think the Bolts' coach is readying Boston for a surprise starter tonight. If Roloson is in there, will he rebound from Game 4? If it's Smith, can he sustain his fine play for a full 60 minutes?
We really don't know how much these things will matter. All we do know is that while this series has been great fun to watch, you also get the feeling that these teams are better than they've shown so far.