By Stu Hackel
It's Tampa Bay at Boston tonight and the winner gets a trip to Vancouver, where the Canucks await, hoping this Game 7 goes a few overtime periods and the Bruins and Lightning beat each other's brains out. Could happen. When it comes down to one game, anything can happen.
Will home ice matter for the Bruins? It did when they played Montreal in Game 7 of the opening round, as B's Coach Claude Julien has mentioned a few times since the end of Game 6 vs. Tampa Bay. On the other hand, the Lightning won a Game 7 on the road in their first round series against Pittsburgh, as their coach, Guy Boucher, has mentioned a few times as well.
The Lightning's victory over the Penguins is the only Game 7 triumph by a road team so far in this playoff tournament. The home teams have won four times. But last year, visitors took all four Game 7s, and in 2009, road teams won four of six. In the six playoffs since the lockout, home teams have won 11 Game 7s and road teams have won 11. So the most obvious advantage may not be an advantage at all.
Instead, when the puck is dropped tonight, many of the same factors we pointed to before Game 6 in Tampa Bay will still be of paramount importance, most crucially goaltending and special teams. The netminding for both teams in that game was less than stellar, but the special teams certainly made a difference.
The Lightning scored three power play goals in four tries, and the Bruins got one in five. It's stunning that the B's power play has limped along so badly in the postseason -- it's now 5 for 61 and 8.2 percent -- yet Boston is still just one win away from a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. And after being shredded by Tampa Bay with the extra man on Wednesday, their penalty kill is no great shakes either (79.4 percent).
If special teams can't carry them, the Bruins must excel in 5-on-5 play. Their 46 full strength goals lead the tournament. The Lightning have scored only 37. But in this series, the difference between the teams at 5-on-5 hasn't been that great. Boston has outscored the Lightning only by 17-16 at full strength. Right after they pulled to within a goal of Tampa Bay in the third period of Game 6 with their only power play tally, the B's gave it right back at full strength, as defenseman Johnny Boychuck made a very poor decision to join the offense and left his blueline post, opening up the ice for a 2-on-1 rush that Martin St. Louis finished for what proved to be the game-winning goal. Here are those two tallies:
On Tampa Bay's goal, you can see Boychuck zipping into the picture from the right just as the Lightning start to move the puck the other way. With mistakes like that at full strength, Boston only damages its chances. If the teams are pretty equal at full strength, it makes it even more crucial for the B's to stay out of the penalty box tonight and not give Tampa Bay too many chances on their revived power play. A lack of discipline may never be more costly than in a Game 7.
So the team that plays with more control -- of the puck, over their emotions, and within their system -- will have the best chance to win. Puck control starts with face-offs, and throughout the series, the team that's won the battles in the faceoff circle has also won the battle on the scoreboard.
The common belief is that there aren't too many secrets or surprises left for the teams to reveal after six games of a Stanley Cup series. You'd think they've shown all they have to show and will just go out and play. But in this strange and entertaining series, there are likely still more in the respective coaches' bags of tricks.
The B's have been continually tinkering with their power play, the latest permutation having big Zdeno Chara in front of Tampa Bay's goal. His huge body is impossible to move out. He certainly has to be the biggest screen in the NHL if not the best (that honor probably goes to Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom) and what he may lack in quick hands, he can probably make up for with his pterodactyl wingspan. That B's power play goal above, you can see, was scored with Chara in front of the net.
But Boston coach Claude Julien's reluctance to place Chara there has to do with the defenseman's award-winning slap shots which, if they were a car on the Mass Pike, would likely earn a few speeding tickets. That howitzer from the point, however, hasn't been the lethal power play blast everyone expected this season. And the problem is that Julien hasn't yet found the guy to take that shot. Tomas Kaberle can be slick with the puck (sometimes), but his shot doesn't scare too many people. There is some talk that Boychuk could assume that role, but Julien -- who is as defensive-minded as they come -- probably fears that Boychuk's defensive deficiencies would be a liability if the penalty killers break out. There's nothing worse than surrendering a shorthanded goal in those situations. Patrice Bergeron is another option, although his playmaking from the half-boards is among the best in the game and the B's would lose that dimension if he were back on the blue line. Mark Recchi? Who knows? But if Chara stays in front, Julien has to do something to replace his shot. So new wrinkles are always possible tonight.
Julien's counterpart, Boucher, is always tinkering as well. On the Versus telecast of Game 6, analyst Eddie Olczyk showed how the Bruins were able to defeat Boucher's 1-3-1 defensive scheme (basically by faking an entry to one side of the ice, drawing the back defender to that side, then shooting the puck to the other side -- which had been vacated -- and winning the race there). But Boucher noticed that, too, and adjusted his scheme by keeping the back defender deeper so the shoot-in could be retrieved by the Lightning and the counterattack could begin. That little tactical skirmish will certainly continue tonight.
The most obvious key to any playoff game is in goal and both Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson are looking to bounce back from shaky Game 6 performances. Both are very resilient, and a real goalie duel could be the result -- although that's been expected most of this series. Instead, Thomas has surrendered five goals four times and Roloson has been pulled twice and didn't even play in Game 5. By now, the teams have gotten some sense of the opposing netminder's weaknesses. The Bruins have tried shooting high to Roloson's glove side recently and the Lightning have moved the puck quickly to try to take advantage of Thomas's aggressiveness in coming out of the net to challenge the shooter.
If Roloson gives up goals early, Boucher won't hesitate to pull him in favor of Mike Smith, who has been very good in relief this series. If Thomas doesn't start well, Julien will almost certainly stick with him. He hasn't gone to Tuukka Rask yet this spring and Thomas has the great ability to turn his game around if he's shaky at the outset.
For whatever reason, the Lightning have shown the tendency to score early in this series. They did it again in Game 6, although the Bruins rebounded and had the lead until they got into penalty trouble. But scoring the first goal has not been an indication of who wins the game in this series. The team that got the first goal is only 3-3.
Who's worth watching tonight? Tampa Bay's Teddy Purcell had another two goals in Game 6, giving him five for the series. David Krejci had a hat trick for the Bruins and has five goals. The Lightning's big three -- Vinny Lecavlaier, Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos -- have seven points apiece. Krejci, Tyler Seguin, Nathan Horton and Michael Ryder have six apiece, although Seguin got his in two games and has been off the scoresheet since. For all the negative press he gets, Kaberle has five assists and is the top scoring defenseman in this series.
On the injury front, Sean Bergenheim seems unlikely to go tonight, as Boucher said after Friday's morning skate. The B's look healthy, although there was some talk that Horton might be suspended for tonight's game. As the Bruins left the ice at the end of Game 6, he appeared to squirt water at a Lightning fan. It was captured in this video (at about the 1:30 mark)...
...and you can see his target -- a fan wearing a blue t-shirt to the right of the runway. It certainly didn't help matters that the Lightning gave their fans plastic "rally drums" to make clattering noises and they were weaponized at the end of the game. There's a reason why most teams give their fans towels to wave during the playoffs and not hard objects that can easily be flung and hurt players.
In any case, the NHL’s Bill Daly emailed Damian Cristodero of The St. Petersburg Times to say that the league would not be taking any action against Horton for the squirt or against the Lightning for the conduct of their fans.
But as the rival paper The Tampa Tribune pointed out, “New York Rangers coach John Tortorella received a one-game suspension for a similar incident involving a Washington Capitals fan behind the New York bench during the 2009 playoffs.
“At the time, NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell issued a statement regarding Tortorella’s actions and the reason for the suspension from a playoff game.
“'It has been made clear to all of our players, coaches and other bench personnel that the National Hockey League cannot — and will not — tolerate any physical contact with fans,’ Campbell wrote. ‘While, in these circumstances, it always is easy to allege mitigating circumstances, the fact is we do not tolerate contact with our fans in this manner.”’
It's a good policy. Wonder why the NHL didn’t follow it this time.