The calendar has turned to May and, with the dismissal of the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night, the field of Stanley Cup contenders has been winnowed down to the final four. We’ve arrived through the first two rounds, seventy games behind us and no more than 21 left ahead of us. We’ve arrived at the conference finals, a battle of north versus south along both coasts of North America, with a shot at Lord Stanley’s Chalice on the line. Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference series on tap as we prepare for this weekend’s start of the next phase on this year’s road to the championship…
#3 Boston Bruins
#5 Tampa Bay Lightning
They may not have been the two best teams in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, but this matchup of teams with identical records will certainly bear out a worthy conference champion. The perception initially bears out as one of defense-versus-offense, with the grinding Bruins taking on the high-flying Lightning in a contrast of philosophies. But perception only tells part of the story with these two teams…
OFFENSE (Advantage: Tampa Bay)
- Tampa Bay – The Lightning have proven the most prolific scoring team in the 2011 postseason, averaging nearly three and a half goals a game (38 goals in 11 contests) after finishing second in the Eastern Conference in regular-season scoring. Most surprising, though, is that they have achieved this glut with a largely inconsequential playoff showing to this point by sniper Steven Stamkos (4 goals, 2 assists). Instead this team has been led by the steady hands of their veterans, with RW Martin St. Louis and C Vincent Lecavalier leading the offensive charge just as they did in Tampa’s 2004 Stanley Cup run. The Lightning have also found a surprise contributor in LW Sean Bergenheim, who leads all players remaining in this year’s playoffs with seven goals so far — half his entire season total in one-eighth the games! In sweeping the top-seeded Capitals, the Lightning scored at least three goals in every game. At this point the only thing that can seemingly slow this offense is the corrosive effects that can come with such a long layoff. But given Boston has had an equally long layoff, and that they have yet to get all their top scorers fully contributing, this might not even become a factor in the series.
- Boston – The Bruins might not look like an elite scoring machine, but when you weigh the numbers you find that they are a team that might lack one elite scorer but has more than made up with a committee approach that has them just one goal behind Tampa Bay in playoff scoring (37 goals in 11 contests). In much the same manner Boston was third in the Eastern Conference in scoring in the regular season, just one point behind the Lightning there as well (247 goals to 246). RW Nathan Horton, C David Krecji and LW Brad Marchand have each scored five goals to tie for the team lead to this point, and C Patrice Bergeron is tied with Lecavalier for second in points amongst those still alive in the Cup hunt. Bergeron, though, is doubtful after his concussion suffered in Game 4, and his absence from the second line could adversely shake up the chemistry that the team has built so far.
DEFENSE (Advantage: Boston)
- Boston – Claude Julien set out to rebuild the Bruins as a disciplined, defensive-minded team over the past few years, and his efforts have yielded major results. Boston boasted the best defense in the Eastern Conference this season (195 goals allowed, +51 scoring differential), the catalyst that helped guide them to the Northeast Division crown and the top-three seed in the playoffs. The defense is built around captain Zdeno Chara, the 6’9″ Slovakian that towers over his opponents and dishes out both bone-jarring hits all over the ice and the hardest slapshot in the NHL from the point pushing forward offensively. Tomas Kaberle has proven to be a smart acquisition at the trade deadline from Toronto, providing solid third-line depth. But the key cog in this defense might be his second-line counterpart, Andrew Ference, the veteran of two previous conference finals runs (in 2001 with Pittsburgh and in 2004 with Calgary). Thriving in Julien’s system, Ference enjoyed the best year of his career this season with a +22 in 70 games. Look for him to play as important a role as anyone else in determining the outcome of this series.
- Tampa Bay – With a completely different emphasis in style, the Lightning allow far more goals than their counterpart on the opposite side of this series (45 more than Boston in the regular season). But so far in these playoffs, the veterans on the blueline have stepped up their play… and have emerged dead even with the Bruins in goals allowed so far these playoffs (24 apiece at 2.18/game). Added at the trade deadline, Eric Brewer has helped solidify the top-line pairing with homegrown Swedish sophomore Victor Hedman. On the second line, Matthias Ohlund has been able to provide a second shutdown presence with his smart positional play. The big question for the Lightning, though, will be whether or not third-line anchor Pavel Kubina can return from the head injury suffered in Game 1 of the Washington series. If he can not come back, the depth might begin to look thin on the back end.
GOALTENDING (Advantage: Boston)
- Boston – There might be next to nothing separating the two starting goalies in this series, but if push came to shove and both teams were required to field their backups Boston would have a definite advantage. The Bruins are certainly hoping that nothing happens to Tim Thomas, but they have one of the most talented backups on their bench in Tuukka Rask. The Finnish netminder, who as a rookie during the 2009-10 season posted the only sub-2.00 goals-against average amongst all qualifying goalies, has been content to remain an understudy to Thomas. But make no mistake, Rask has starter potential if and when he gets into games. While Thomas is currently the second-best goalie in the playoffs by the numbers (8-3, 2.03 GAA, .937 SV%), Rask provides the ultimate playoff insurance at this point.
- Tampa Bay – Of course, Thomas has yet to prove he can hoist a team on his shoulders and carry it all the way to the finals. The Lightning have such a guy in Dwayne Roloson, the one goalie so far in these playoffs with better numbers than Thomas (8-3, 2.01 GAA, .941 SV%). Roloson has been the main man in net in the playoffs before, a pivotal part of Edmonton’s run to the Cup finals in 2006, and he can singlehandedly steal a game when the Tampa defense breaks down. But if he goes down for the Lightning they have less security on the bench than the Bruins. Mike Smith has proven to be less than Tampa had hoped for when they acquired him from Dallas in the Brad Richards trade, playing no more than 42 games in any of his three-plus seasons.
COACHES (Advantage: Boston)
In a battle of head coaches that parlayed their rise to the NHL ranks after success with the Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL, the nod goes to Claude Julien on sheer experience. Julien has reached the playoffs five times in eight seasons as the head coach in Montreal, New Jersey and Boston, though this is the first time one of his teams has advanced all the way to the conference finals. Behind the opposite bench, Guy Boucher has overseen a renaissance in Tampa Bay in his rookie season as an NHL head coach. But can he continue to produce playoff magic all the way to the Stanley Cup finals? Both men are in uncharted waters, but the slightest of advantages goes to the guy who has guided more teams into the playoffs.
Both teams had to come from behind in the opening round to get anywhere near this point. They then both breezed through the second round. It has been an eerily parallel season these two teams have played out, and Saturday night we’ll see them take to the ice for what will be the 94th game of the season for each team. The first period or two might be a little tentative, as the teams feel one another out on the ice and sand away the rust of their extended rest period.
Look for these games to be physical, with Boston setting the tone early out of the gate to assert their presence and to prevent Tampa Bay from finding the time and space to get comfortable and do what they do best. Boston won the season series between these two teams 3-1, with the Bruins victories coming by 2-1, 4-3 (OT) and 8-1 scorelines and the lone Lightning success a 3-1 home victory in the most recent game between the two.
As long as both Thomas and Roloson stay healthy, both teams are going to enjoy stellar doses of confident play from their backstops. This is all going to come down to which team manages to play its game and get the timely production that always marks the Stanley Cup playoffs — but has been even more acutely present in this postseason. Roloson and Tampa’s scorers should be able to steal a game at home (and maybe even another on the road) for the Lightning, but I’m envisioning Boston emerging from this series in five to reach their first Stanley Cup finals since 1990…