Bruins-Lightning should go down to wire
The schedule has yet to be determined, but the Bruins will have home-ice advantage in the best-of-seven series to determine the conference championship.
By this point, Bruins fans know what to expect from the hometown team, but what about the Lightning? How did Tampa get to this point?
Bruins coach Claude Julien gave his players the weekend off for some much-needed rest and relaxation, but he and his coaching staff have been working hard in preparation for the series against the Lightning.
"The one thing they do well is they've got a good compete level," Julien said Sunday. "They play hard every game and they've got their own kind of system that they believe in and has served them well."
Tampa is a fairly disciplined and structured team, and its systems play protects its weaknesses. The Lightning's weakness is the blue line. They have a nondescript defensive corps, but one of the main reasons Tampa has made it this far is because the team's structure has protected the defensive liabilities.
Tampa is not a strong forechecking team and it usually plays a patient 1-3-1 in the neutral zone, but sometimes will switch it up and go with a 1-2-2. The Lightning are the type of team that will give its opponent control of the red line, but will defend against the entry and its own blue line. In fact, they usually have one defenseman cheating back, so he can defend against a dump-in and quickly gain control of the puck.
"They try to keep the team on their heels a little bit with that," Julien said. "And obviously in the offensive zone, a lot of pucks are going to the net. They always have somebody going there. They're really a driven team and they've made it hard on teams they've played against so far in the playoffs and have had success at it. So we're aware of it."
If the Bruins are careless on the attack, Tampa will capitalize on the counterattack and transition play. If the Bruins dump the puck, they better do it well because the Lightning will have that one defenseman back in the zone ready for it.
When the Lightning played Pittsburgh in the first round, the Penguins' strategy was to pound Tampa's 41-year-old goaltender Dwayne Roloson in hopes of getting the rebounds. That worked to a certain extent and that's why that series went seven games. In fact, if the Penguins had a successful power play, they probably would have beaten the Lightning.
In the semifinals against Washington, the Capitals didn't do a very good job of sustaining pressure in the offensive zone. Even though Tampa earned the sweep, those four games were a lot closer than the scores indicate. The Lightning did not roll over the Capitals. In fact, Washington dominated a lot of those games, but it couldn't solve Roloson.
The Capitals also tried to rim the puck around the boards during the attack, but with Tampa having a defenseman cheating back, Washington's game plan was unsuccessful. Somehow the Bruins need to figure out how to neatralize that defenseman and gain control of the puck in the offensive zone.
In order for the Bruins to have success, they need to dominate Tampa's defense and force the Lightning to play in their own end. Boston needs to challenge Roloson and make it absolutely miserable for him in the blue paint.
As for Tampa Bay, the Lighning have some high-end skill with their forwards, the types of players who can hurt you on the counterattack and on the power play.
At this stage of the season, your best players need to be at their best, and for the Lightning, Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier all have been difference-makers for Tampa, especially in the playoffs. They have elevated their games and are playing extremely well right now. That's dangerous.
"When you see [Tampa] on the attack, they are ferocious," Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said. "Everything is thrown at the net. There may be some occasions where there is some peripheral stuff, but it's always a direct line."
Even though Tampa has been led by the likes of Stamkos, St. Louis and Lecavalier, those players have been complimented by role players on the third and fourth lines. Players such as Sean Bergenheim, Nate Thompson and Dominic Moore have also made significant contributions.
"What has given them some success, especially in the playoffs, has been their third, fourth lines have done a pretty good job for them," Julien admitted. "Everybody is talking about St. Louis, Lecavalier, Stamkos, [Randy] Jones, those kind of guys. But the Bergenheims and the Moores and the Thompsons, they are all playing pretty hard and I think that has helped them a lot. They are a team that competes very hard. And that's what makes them successful."
Goaltending will be key. Bruins netminder Tim Thomas, a Vezina Trophy finalist as the league's top goalie, has been spectacular in the playoffs. But Tamps Bay's Roloson has too. Tampa was struggling in net during the regular season, so it acquired Roloson in a trade with the New York Islanders in January. The transaction has helped the Lightning tremendously as Roloson has been terrific in the playoffs and has come up with many timely saves.
"They went and got a veteran goaltender, and that also strengthened their team," Julien said.
The Bruins and Lightning played four times during the regular season with Boston posting a 3-1 record.
"It's up to us here to really focus on continuing to play our game, but we've had some success against them in the regular season," Julien said. "I'm not saying that that should give us an advantage, but there's confidence and we know they've made some adjustment. We're going to have to make some adjustments as well. But I think, compete-wise, both teams are up there."
There's no doubt special teams will be an important factor.
In order for the Bruins to have success, they need to be disciplined and stay out of the penalty box. They can't allow Tampa's power play to be the difference.
The Lightning finished the regular season with the sixth-ranked power play in the league. Boston was 20th. Of the 16 teams that qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Lightning are ranked No. 3 on the power play. The Bruins are 14th.
Tampa's power play has won a lot of games for the Lightning, and that is reflective of their top-end talent. Stamkos, Lecavalier, St. Louis and Brian Malone are the key players on the power play.
Scoring opportunities and timely goals during the man-advantage have really given the Lightning a major boost. Even when the Lightning didn't score, Tampa usually sustained pressure in the offensive zone, helping create momentum.
Because they have a lot of weapons, it's tough to key on any one guy. That means the Bruins' top defenseman, Zdeno Chara, will be busy.
"He will get lots of ice, we will hopefully cover as much as we can," Julien said with a smile. "But having said that, we've got a lot of other guys, like [Johnny] Boychuk and [Andrew] Ference have been really good as well. And [Adam] McQuaid [neck strain] should be back for the start of the series. Things are looking really good for him. And I think [Tomas] Kaberle has played better here late in this second round. His game has gotten better."
Tampa's special-team units are the reason it won the first two series. Roloson has been its best penalty killer with timely saves, and the team has the second-best PK in the playoffs, allowing only three power-play goals on 54 times while shorthanded. Boston's PK is ranked eighth and has allowed eight power-play goals on 41 opportunities.
In order for Boston to have success in this series, its power play needs to be better.
The Bruins went 0-for-30 on the power play before scoring on a two-man advantage in Game 3 against the Flyers. Boston pumped in a five-on-four power-play goal in Game 4, and Julien believes that special-team unit has come around.
"It's going to be up to us to hopefully keep our power play going in the right direction," Julien said. "I've liked the way our power play has performed the last two games, not just last game because we scored on the five-on-three. But we've moved the puck a lot better. We've had some better scoring chances, so hopefully that makes us a threat there."
Then, of course, there's the health of both teams.
Both clubs are relatively healthy given the time of the season, but the Bruins suffered a major blow when top playmaker Patrice Bergeron suffered a mild concussion in Game 4 against the Flyers and is out indefinitely. His absence will no doubt hurt the Bruins because he's been Tampa's best all-around player in the playoffs.
It's no secret why Tampa is playing in the conference final, and the Lightning will be a big challenge for the Bruins.
"I have turned the page on the last round and I am really focused on this one against Tampa," Julien said. "To me, it's about finishing the job and hopefully getting the ending we are looking for."
It's a safe bet that this series will go the distance.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.