By Stu Hackel
The roar of approval from Bruins Nation during Monday's Game 5 win over the Lightning had to be loudest for two events. One was Tim Thomas's save of the year on Steve Downie, which preserved Boston's one-goal lead in the third period. The other was seeing Zdeno Chara playing in front of the Lightning net on a Bruins power play, an adjustment by coach Claude Julien that B's fans have screamed was needed for months.
That combination of great goaltending and some coaching flexibility will have to continue for Boston to skate into Tampa Bay tonight and come home with the Prince of Wales Trophy for the Eastern Conference championship.
First, the save, which came midway through the period with Boston on its heels, as it was for much of the game.
Glenn Healy's words after that save are just as applicable, even prophetic, almost six months later: "He never quits on a play....He covers up for all the blemishes you have. You can commit any sin in your own end and it just doesn't matter."
Thomas can do that. He can steal games that way, and even entire series. He might do it here, although he's had his ups and downs this round. The main thing with hot goaltending in the playoffs is doing it when it counts, and so far Thomas has done it often enough to be a Conn Smythe candidate if the B's advance.
But no one player does it alone, not even a goalie, and Boston has benefited from some good special teams play. Just not on the power play. That's still an ugly part of the Bruins' game. They've improved in how quickly they move the puck, and shifting Chara from the point to a station in front of the net might even yield a rare goal. Julien said yesterday he liked what he saw from that set-up and he might keep using it.
It's been on the penalty kill where Boston special teams have flourished. Tampa Bay's power play had been the best in the playoffs heading into this round, with 12 goals in 11 games. Lightning coach Guy Boucher is an acknowledged mastermind of the power play. His junior teams were so proficient at it that Hockey Canada tapped him to be their special teams coach during international tournaments. His Lightning were clicking at a 26.7 rate until this round began. But Julien and his staff have figured out how to neutralize that part of Tampa Bay's game by utilizing some of Boston's faster skaters to make the neutral zone a difficult area for Boucher's troops to navigate when they're a man up. Julien noted yesterday during his off-day press briefing that his penalty killers have done a "really, really good at putting pressure on Tampa so that they couldn't get themselves going and get in our own end as quick as they would have liked to."
After surrendering PP goals in each of the first two games, Boston has kept the Bolts off the score sheet with the extra man in the last three and have killed off 11 straight attempts. But Boston is 2-for-19 on the power play in this round while Tampa Bay is 2-for-18. So as bad as the B's power play has been, their PK has kept the special teams battle even. Can Boucher make counter-adjustments to get his PP going again? That's something to watch for tonight.
So there's no secret formula here. The playoffs are, to a significant extent, about special teams and goaltending. But they are also about how coaches deploy their troops. With Game 6 in Tampa Bay, Boucher will have the last change and the advantage of getting his players on the ice to match the ones that Julien puts out. He'll want to have his top defensive duo of Mattias Ohlund and Eric Brewer out against the Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton trio, even though he had that matchup in Boston when Horton one-timed the tying goal in the second period off a great pass by Lucic the found the seam in Tampa's defensive zone coverage.
Boucher will also try to keep his top unit of Teddy Purcell,Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis away from Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. In Boston, he even juggled is lines to keep Vinny away from Chara. From the early part of Game 5, Chara dominated Lecavalier physically and that's a matchup that Julien will try to get if he can by changing defensemen on the fly. Lecavalier has five points in this series (a goal and four assists), but he got four of those points in the wild Game 2. So the B's have kept him off the score sheet in three of the five games so far.
Some other things to watch: Dominance in the faceoff circle has mattered in this series. The winner of each game also won more faceoffs, and usually by a wide margin of about 60 percent to 40 percent. So keep an eye on that little battle tonight as well.
Dwayne Roloson returns to the net after being spelled by Mike Smith for Game 5. He wasn't terrible in Games 3 and 4, matches in which he was pulled, but he did let in goals that he might have stopped. Boucher's reasoning is that Roloson will be better after resting a game.
On the injury front, the Lightning may be without Sean Bergenheim, their leading goal-scorer (9). He has great chemistry with Downie and Dominic Moore on Tampa's third line, so if he can't go, how much will that decrease that line's effectiveness. Speedy Blair Jones would take Bergenheim's spot.
Fluto Shinzawa blogs in The Boston Globe: "Interesting to see whether the Bruins make any lineup changes -- specifically, Shawn Thornton for Tyler Seguin. Claude Julien said it was harder on the road to get the matchups he wanted for Seguin. The guess is that Seguin stays in, but perhaps they're giving it some thought."
The Boston injury report on defenseman Johnny Boychuk is that he's good to go for tonight after taking a late hit from Downie in Game 5. Downie hit Boychuk from behind and the result was Boychuk's head slamming into the glass. He was helped off and didn't return. (Can't find video on that. Sorry). It was called boarding and Downie got a minor, but it was a soft call. Downie could have gotten five and a game for hitting from behind.
But the refs were obviously in a lenient mood. They didn't penalize Andrew Ference when he tripped Downie behind Boston's net shortly after Downie came out of the box. And Michael Ryder got away with what looked like a charge on Blair Jones shortly before Downie's hit on Boychuk.
After watching some of what wasn't called last night in the Vancouver-San Jose game, it looks as if the refs are "letting 'em play." As for Downie, as Ira Kaufman speculates in The Tampa Tribune, it could be that he's the victim of his bad reputation.