All the dramatics in the other conference have turned the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins into bystanders for more than a week. By the time the Eastern Conference Final begins at TD Garden on Saturday night, the Lightning will have had 10 days off and the Bruins idle for eight days after their second-round sweeps of the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers, respectively.
“It’s been the same for both teams,” Bruins forward David Krejci said on Friday. “Hopefully, there are not going to be excuses on either side.”
The time off has allowed both teams to heal from the nagging issues that crop up during 82 regular season games and a couple rounds of playoffs, but Tampa (defenseman Pavel Kubina) and Boston (forward Patrice Bergeron) will be without players -- at least to start the series --- due to concussion-like symptoms. Tampa will have Simon Gagne, who, like Kubina, suffered a concussion in Game 1 last round, back in the lineup.
Since it feels like these teams haven’t played since the All-Star break, there’s also the issue of carryover. Will there be any? Third-line Lightning forward Sean Bergenheim scored four goals last series and leads Tampa Bay with seven overall in the playoffs. Bruins forward Milan Lucic also broke out of a playoff slump by scoring his first two goals of the playoffs in Game 4 against the Flyers.
Bruins coach Claude Julien said he’s not overly concerned about the break. The Bruins had about a three-week break two years ago in the second round against the Carolina Hurricanes and won Game 1, although the ‘Canes ultimately took the series.
“I think it's been a group effort that mentally we stayed on top of our game, on top of our focus,” he said. “At the same time, the physical part of it, I don't think too many players get out of shape at this time of year.“
Here’s the breakdown:
Forwards: The only two forwards left from the Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cup-winning team of 2004 have played like they want another crack at it. Martin St. Louis (six goals, seven assists) and Vincent Lecavalier (five goals, seven assists) lead the lightning in scoring. But it’s the secondary scoring that’s been most impressive. Steve Downie (two goals, 10 assists) and Bergenheim (seven goals, one assist) have each scored more than Steven Stamkos (four goals, two assists), Tampa’s top goal scorer during the regular season. The fact that Gagne is expected back in the lineup gives Tampa two high-powered top lines with one of the most (unexpectedly) potent third lines of the playoffs. The Bruins have their weapon even minus Bergeron, who absorbed a hit by Flyers Claude Girioux and suffered a “minor” concussion. Julien said Bergeron is “progressing” but reiterated that he doesn’t expect to have his services early in the series. Bergeron has not been cleared to take part in practice. Rookie Tyler Seguin will take Bergeron’s place in the lineup. Now, the Bruins need somebody to pick up some of Bergeron’s production. The top candidate would be Lucic, who has struggled mightily but also had points in back-to-back games as the Bruins closed out the Flyers. Pesky rookie Brad Marchand has done more than just been an agitator on the ice; he’s been the second most productive Bruin with 11 points.
Defense: The Lightning may not have a 6-foot-9 blue liner on its roster --- the closest they will get on Saturday is 6-4 Mattias Ohlund --- but the Lightning’s defense has stood out anyway this postseason. While a lot of the credit will go to goalie Dwayne Roloson, only two Tampa players enter the series with a negative plus-minus. Ohlund, plus-6, leads in that category. Eric Brewer is tops in both ice time (26 minutes , nine seconds per game) and points (six) this postseason. Randy Jones, who missed a month with a high-ankle sprain, replaced Kubina in the lineup and has a point in three games. Chara has obviously recovered from the dehydration issue that kept him out a game in the first round. He’s tops in the playoffs in plus-minus (plus-11) and leading the Bruins in ice time again (28:41). In fact, all the Bruins defensemen have at least an even plus-minus rating. The Bruins should get Adam McQuaid, who suffered a neck injury in Game 2 last round, for Game 1 and Boston’s depth on the blue line will only get deeper now that Steven Kampher, who has been out since the closing days of the regular season with a knee injury, has returned to practice.
Goalies: Lots will be made of the next few days about Tampa’s Roloson, 41, and his 37-year-old counterpart Tim Thomas. Along with New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur, they are the last of the old-school goalies who don’t depend purely on the cookie-cutter butterfly goalies that populate the NHL. Regardless of how they do, each has been successful this season. Both have nearly identical numbers in the postseason, although Thomas gets the nod during the regular season. Thomas has the highest save percentage (.938) since the stat began to be tracked 34 years ago. He was also tops in goals-against average (2.00) and second in shutouts (nine). Thomas, who didn’t even start in the playoffs a season ago, is a primary reason the Bruins have ventured into the conference finals for the first time since 1992.
Special teams: Tampa Bay, successful in 26.7 percent of their opportunities, has the top power play among the four teams left in the playoffs. The Lightning also have the best penalty kill (94.4 percent), especially impressive when you factor in they had to contend with the high-powered Washington Capitals last round. The Bruins may have solved their power play issues. It took until the third game of the second round (0-for-30) before Boston scored on the man-advantage. But they closed out the final two games against the Flyers with a 2-for-7 mark. Boston has the lowest-ranked PK of the remaining playoff teams, 80.5 percent.
Prediction: These two teams both had seven-game series in the first round followed by sweeps. I think this will be closer to the former. The Bruins are better defensively --- a nod to the blue line and Thomas --- but how they handle the Lightning’s potent offense will make interesting viewing. I think minus Bergeron, you have to give the benefit of the doubt to Tampa Bay. I’ll take the Lightning in seven games.
-- A.J. Perez
Photo: Getty Images
|Eastern Conference Finals|
|No. 3 Boston vs. No. 5 Tampa Bay - Series tied, 0-0|
|May 14||at BOS||8 p.m.|
|May 17||at BOS||8 p.m.|
|May 19||at TB||8 p.m.|
|May 21||at TB||1:30 p.m.|
|* May 23||at BOS||8 p.m.|
|* May 25||at TB||8 p.m.|
|* May 27||at BOS||8 p.m.|