Five keys for Bruins against Lightning
The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning will finally begin the Eastern Conference finals series Saturday at TD Garden. With the Lightning off since May 5 and the Bruins since May 6, there might be some rust to shake off, but the two teams are ready to go. Here's what the Bruins must do to continue their deepest playoff run since 1992 and advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1990.
1. Keep game-by-game mentalityProbably the biggest topic going into this series is the long layoff for both teams. If the Bruins continue to use the game-by-game approach they have used throughout the playoffs -- which they credited for their comeback from a 2-0 series deficit to the Montreal Canadiens and then their sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers -- the layoff shouldn't matter. Those series are in the past, and the Bruins have had plenty of time to move on and focus on the game at hand.
"You can sit here and talk the talk, but it means nothing if you go out there and don't do what you're preaching," winger Milan Lucic said. "I think that's where we've matured as a team, is not just sitting around and talking about what we're gonna do, we're actually going out there and doing it, and we gotta stay with that mentality."
Lucic is exactly right. The Bruins need to walk the walk.
2. Special teams needs to improveThe Lightning have the second-best penalty kill in the postseason, killing 51 of 54 power plays. With the Bruins clicking on only 5.4 percent (two of 37) of their power plays, they must find a way to get things going on the man-advantage. Both teams match up very well, and with the referees still calling what they see and not burying the whistle, the Bruins need to capitalize on any chance they get. That means getting the power play at least off life support.
The Lightning also have the third-best power play in the playoffs, scoring at a 26.7 percent success rate, so the Bruins' penalty kill will need to tighten up. As Gregory Campbell pointed out recently, the Bolts pose plenty of challenges to opposing penalty kills -- specifically with Martin St. Louis, who leads the NHL in playoff power-play scoring with 3-4-7 totals.
"They have their top guys there, and their top guys are some of the top players in the league," Campbell said. "So when you have that combination, it's obviously going to work. They always had a power play that was, not to say it wasn't structured, but their parts, they move in and out. And it's tough to defend that when you have St. Louis sometimes playing on the point and then he's down low. To have a game plan [to defend] is a little bit tougher than most."
3. Julien must continue to adapt but maintain game planEvery move Claude Julien has made since Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals has seemingly turned to gold. From timeouts to in-game line changes, Julien seems to have a pulse on each game and, unlike in years past, is not afraid to adapt. That will be a huge key in this series, as the Bruins face one of the tougher systems this season in Lightning coach Guy Boucher's 1-3-1 system. Julien must stay within his defensive game plan but at the same time utilize his team's speed and neutral zone play and allow his players to move the puck up ice, transitioning into the offensive zone as they did with relative ease against the Flyers.
4. Thomas must show his youthAll kidding aside, in what will be a battle of elder statesmen with 37-year-old Tim Thomas facing off against 41-year-old Lightning goaltender Dwayne Roloson, Thomas must be the younger goalie and show his endurance. Both netminders seem to get better with age and have been arguably the best goalies in the playoffs, making their cases as Conn Smythe candidates. Goaltending is the tightest matchup in this series, so the Bruins need Thomas to continue the magical run that he has been on throughout 2010-11. If Thomas can steal a game or two, as he has in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Bruins will be in great shape. As long as he is in the zone and doing his job between the pipes, the younger of these two impressive netminders could lead the Bruins to the finals.
5. Don't let it become a perimeter gameThe Lightning lead all playoff teams in blocked shots with 233, averaging 21.2 per game. Just like the Canadiens, Tampa Bay makes it very difficult to get pucks to the net and create action in front of Roloson. But as the Bruins did after the first two games against Montreal, they must park their big bodies, such as Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton, in front and cycle the puck down low to feed those two wingers for one-timers or rebounds. Boston cannot allow Tampa Bay to dictate the net presence in this series or turn its offensive-zone time into a passing game around the perimeter. The Bruins must control the frustration that surely will arise from the trap the Lightning use and keep pushing ahead with a north-south game.
PredictionIf the Bruins can continue to play their game and stay within the moment without looking ahead, they should be able to come out victorious in what should be a classic series. Just like in the Western Conference finals with the San Jose Sharks and Vancouver Canucks, the Bruins and Lightning are evenly matched and this series should go the distance. In the end, Tim Thomas and the Bruins' physical, grinding style should be the difference, and the Bruins will advance to the Stanley Cup finals.
Bruins in 7.
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.