So the NHL apparently called Brad Marchand and asked him to stop licking people. That’s nice. It also might be the most NHL thing ever. It looks as though Marchand is going to have to stick to playing hockey in the second round of the playoffs, which is good because chances are, the Tampa Bay Lightning weren’t going to take a licking anyway.
The Boston Bruins and the Lightning jockeyed for top position in the Atlantic Division through the second half of the season and even though the Lightning took the crown, and the home-ice advantage that comes with it, they were hardly a juggernaut down the stretch. The Bruins, meanwhile, faltered in the last week of the season when the Atlantic was theirs for the taking and were forced to go the distance in Round 1. These are two very imperfect teams, which could make for an entertaining and raucous Round 2.
How The Lightning Win
Only three forwards who played all five games against the New Jersey Devils in the first round failed to score a goal. This is a team that can overwhelm its opponents with an embarrassment of riches up front. Nikita Kucherov was even more brilliant in the first round than he was during the regular season, and that’s saying something. Steven Stamkos, who was once one of the greatest goal-scorers of his generation, has grown content with setting them up for Kucherov to knock into the back of the net. They were deadly in the faceoff circle against the Devils, which realistically probably isn’t going to be the case against the Bruins. But the Lightning have the ability to score their way out of trouble and to put their opponents in a hole.
But what had to be just as encouraging to the Lightning was their ability to keep the puck out of their own net. They gave up only 10 goals in the series, just seven of them at even strength. Much of that had to do with the fact that goalie Andrei Vasilevsky, who essentially threw away the Vezina Trophy with a mid-/late-season lull, put up a .941 save percentage and regained the confidence of his teammates.
How The Bruins Win
The line of Patrice Bergeron between Marchand and David Pastrnak will give the Lightning’s much-maligned defense corps all it can handle. Why? Because it gives every defense corps all it can handle. It has the ability to mesmerize with its puck possession, which almost always comes right off the draw. When that line creates offense it almost always invariably leads to the Bruins winning the game. Even with his penchant for licking being stopped in his tracks, Marchand remains one of the most exasperating opponents in the NHL, both for his antics and his ability to score at crucial times.
Even though the top line garners most of the laurels – and attention from opponents – the Bruins have some terrific scoring depth in their lineup. They got goals from 14 different players in the first round, including five goals from their defensemen. Rookie Jake DeBrusk did more with less than any other player in the first round, scoring five goals in the series despite averaging fewer than 15 minutes of ice time per game. It would not be a stretch to suggest that the Bruins were the better team in each of the seven games against Toronto and even after blowing a 3-1 lead, there was no indication that there was ever a sense of panic in the dressing room.
Five Things To Watch
1. Bergeron’s health. He has been plagued by injuries all season and missed one game in the first round with an upper-body injury. There hasn’t been a ton of certainty surrounding his health and the Bruins are a decidedly easier out without him in the lineup.
2. The Chara effect. Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara spent much of this season defying Father Time, but really wore down as the first round progressed. If the Lightning attack him with their speed – which they will – it may be difficult for him to keep up.
3. Which goaltenders will show up? Tuukka Rask proved in the first round that a team doesn’t need superhuman goaltending to win a series. But he’ll have to be better against the Lightning. Vasilevskiy found his groove in Round 1, but has been plagued by inconsistency as well.
4. Can the Lightning defense hold up? The Bruins enter this series with a decided advantage on defense, but the Lightning did manage to tighten things up defensively in Round 1. Their penalty killing was far better in the first round than it was in the regular season. The Lightning will pay if they return to their messy regular season ways in their own end.
5. Fatigue. The Bruins had a compressed schedule down the stretch and played a lot of hockey, then had to play seven games in the first round. Both teams did a very good job of managing ice time through the first round, but no Tampa forward even averaged 20 minutes per game in the first round and, with a five-game series in Round 1 and a good rest, should be fresh.
THN series prediction: Lightning in six.
LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALTENDERS