By Joe Haggerty
BOSTON The Bruins have won eight of their last nine games, and are 7-1 since taking the mid-playoff retreat to Lake Placid, and were rolling as they bulldozed over the Flyers in the second round. Likewise, the Tampa Bay Lightning stung the Penguins in the first round before sweeping the unsuspecting Washington Capitals in the second round and ripping off seven straight wins headed into Boston.
Both the Bruins and Lightning were hot as pistols, and now theyve had eight and nine days respectively to cool off, gather some rust and lose whatever mojo theyd uncovered during their first 11 playoff games. Its a great mystery how both teams will come out for Game One, but perhaps more so for the Bruins team that will be without Patrice Bergeron for the first couple of games at the very least.
Nobody was hotter than Tim Thomas at the end of the Flyers series as he showed up the traveling band of Philly puck-stoppers at an epic level, and the Bs will need him to regain that form quickly against the offensively electric Lightning.
You try to be as ready as you can, said Tim Thomas. You can never really tell till you get out there playing for sure exactly how youre going to feel. You can think youre going to pick up where you left off without a beat.
Sometimes that may not be the case, but sometimes it is the case. Im hoping for the latter. Im hoping I can pick up right where I left off.
With both teams in the same rusty boat getting prepared for Saturday nights series opener, here are five things that have to happen for the Bruins to capture the Eastern Conference Finals.
1) Breaking down the vaunted 1-3-1 trap: Tampa coach Guy Boucher has been given a ton of credit for implementing a trap system thats been around for a long time, but give him credit for making everything seem fresh and new with the Lightnings defensive system. A simple key for the Bruins forwards and defensemen: take care of the puck through the neutral zone, and avoid sloppy turnovers near the blue lines or center ice. That is what killed the Bruins during their first two games against the Canadiens when they haphazardly tossed the puck around, and opened the door for the Habs to walk right through. The Bs will likely overload one end of the neutral zone with skaters, and then aim for perfect chips past the Tampa defender guarding the boards as they attempt to enter the offensive zone. The entire key to the Bs gaining offensive momentum is getting a lackluster Tampa Bay defensemen corps turned around and chasing the puck in their own zone. If the Lightning arent cleanly retrieving pucks then thats a sign the Bruins are patiently busting up Bouchers vaunted trap.
2) Keep the mystique and aura going at TD Garden: Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher wasnt even prompted to bring it up, and he began talking about the Lightnings franchises horrendous 4-31 record (4-22-9 to be exact) in Boston throughout their Eastern Conference battles. I think since I've been in the NHL, I hear a lot about stats all the time. If you focus on all the failures of the past, you're certainly not going to have success. Whether it was the first series or the second series, what weve done during the year against a certain team in their rink or in our rink, you know, you might as well stay home. If you haven't had success before or it hasn't happened before, you're certainly not going to be the one that's going to be the surprising one that's making it happen. That's always been my philosophy, in this league or another one. You make it what you want to make it where you are at that moment. That's why I don't believe in momentum from game to game. Within the same game, same period, yeah. But every second and every moment that you have is an opportunity to change things or to mold things. I know I've heard in Boston, we're 4 wins out of 35 in franchise history. Obviously, if we focus on that, we could have just stayed home. I tend to think if 4 games were won, we have a chance.
If it's never been done before, then let's find a way to do it. So for me, I really watch out for stats and for a past. For me it's all about today. If we have a bad day or bad period, the next period doesn't have to be like it was the first period. Everything's an opportunity. Methinks Boucher doth protest a little bit too much here. If the Bruins can find a way to capture a couple of tight wins at home in Game 1 and Game 2 then the Bolts will start questioning whether there really is something mystical going on with them in Boston. As it is, the worst beating of Tampas season took place on the Boston ice when Mike Smith had a meltdown between the pipes that sped the wheels of progress in the Dwayne Roloson deal.
3) Double-teaming Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos with defenseman Zdeno Chara and Chris Kelly: the French-Canadian pocket rocket and the one-timing Stammer Hammer are a lethal duo on Tampas top line and both Chara and Kellys line will be getting shutdown duties against them. Expect to see Kelly shadow St. Louis all over the ice and attempt to frustrate the diminutive playmaker while Chara will keep Stamkos and Ryan Malone far away from the Boston net. Patrice Bergeron was almost strictly defensive duty in the four regular season games against the Lightning with no points and a minus-1 against them, and Kelly will similarly be focused on the defensive zone. If those two shutdown guys can neutralize Stamkos and Kelly then theyll take their chances with Vinny Lecavalier and Simon Gagne, who finished with an aggregate one goal and minus-5 in four games against the Bruins this season. Conversely Malone, St. Louis and Stamkos had three goals and five assists in 11 games.
4) Nathan Horton needs to go off against his old rivals. Horton was straight-faced talking about the Battle for Florida games that the Panthers used to play against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and its clear he does get up for those games given the 22 goals scored and 42 points in 42 career games against Tampa. The 6-foot-2, 225 pound winger has points in five straight games after starting slowly against the Habs, and he, along with the rest of the Bs first line, should have a field day against the plush, squishy soft Tampa defense. There is no P.K. Subban or Hal Gill among Tampas defensemen corps and they can be exploited by Bostons combination of size, strength and skill. Horton and Milan Lucic should be big offensive players against the Bolts.
5) Discipline will be among the biggest factors in the series. The Lightning lead the NHL with 12 power play goals and their man advantage is clicking at just a shade under27 percent during the postseason. That means guys like Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand will have to check themselves before they wreck themselves just as they did against Montreal for big portions of the series. With the goaltending expected to be pretty even between the two teams in an epic match of goalie graybeards in Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson, Boston keeping it from devolving into a special teams skirmish is the top priority for leaving the seven game series with a Stanley Cup Finals berth.
The Bruins are without Patrice Bergeron to start the series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and there are real, legitimate questions to whether the center will factor into the Eastern Conference Finals at all. The Bs know they have a legit challenge ahead of them slowing down a lethal Lightning attack without their best two-way center in the biggest playoff series of the last 19 years.
The job of slowing down the Lighting offense now comes down to Chris Kelly, Mark Recchi and Brad Marchand to start, and perhaps Gregory Campbell and Rich Peverley will factor in before its all said and done as well. Either way, priority one to beating the Bolts is shutting down their offensive rain makers.
Its just like anything else. Theyre skilled guys and youve got to take time and space away from them, said Mark Recchi. Youve got to make it hard for them just like theyre going to make it hard on our guys. Youve got to be on your toes and youve got to be in their faces. Youve got to play the right way and if you do that then youll make it that much tougher. Youre never going to shut guys down. Youre just trying to eliminate how many chances they get. When youre that good a player youre going to create offense at some point, weve just got to keep it to a minimum.
If they cant make it hard for Tampa, the series could be over awfully quickly. Here are five things that would signal danger if they start to take place for Boston in the seven game series.
1) Milan Lucic gets that Montreal look: the high speed pace of the Montreal series and the fact the Boston coaching staff put Lucic under orders not to mix it up physically made him close to a non-factor against the Canadiens. Since the Tampa Bay Lightning are eerily similar to the Habs except with more firepower to score goals, there could be another all points bulletin out for Lucic in the upcoming series and that could be fatal with Patrice Bergeron down and out this time around.
2) Tyler Seguinplays like a first-timer: the No. 2 overall pickis excited to finally make his playoff debut after sitting out the first 11 games, and the 19-year-old has responded all season when scratched or presented with the threat of a junior hockey return hanging over his head. But hes also been prone to rookie mistakes at times through his first campaign an understandable thing given how raw he was coming out of the OHL but those rookie brain cramps can be killers in the playoffs. A bad penalty here or an ill-attempted drop back pass in the wrong spot could be a killer against a Tampa Bay team that can hurt the opposition in so many ways.
3) If the Bruins dont learn from the past, then theyre doomed to repeat it: The Bruins had nine days off prior to the Carolina Hurricanes series two years ago, and they never fully recovered after sweeping the Montreal Canadiens. Its eight days off this time around, and the Bs will get another chance to prove theyve learned from the past. They proved it in one aspect by finishing off the Flyers last round, and theyll get another chance to redeem past failures with a long rest followed by the Lightning.
4) Tampa can't turn their power plays into a "Welcome to the Gun Show": Steve Stamkos, Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis have seven power play goals in 11 playoff games and the team has potted an NHL-best 12 PP scores this postseason. If it turns into a contest of special teams then the Bruins are doomed no matter how well theyre playing during 5-on-5 situations.
5) Tim Thomas can't cool down: The B's goalierevved up the engines and was in the zone during the entire Flyers series, and basically crushed Phillys spirit while making 52 saves in Game Two at the Wells Fargo Center. If it takes Thomas a game or two to get back into that zone, that will spell big time trouble for a Bruins team that needs Thomas to be their single best player on the ice while Bergeron is out of the lineup. If Thomas lets former UVM teammate St. Louis into his head at all during the seven game series, then its going to be a quick one for the Black and Gold. Thomas needs to stay hungry, stay focused and stay away from the guy that looked way too human in the first 2 23 of the seven game series against the Habs.
Prediction: There are actually two predictions given the status of Patrice Bergeron. With Bergeron returning at some point in the series, the Bruins ride the Lightning in six games and get to the Cup Finals for the first time since 1990. If Bergeron doesnt play then the Bruins fall to Tampa Bay in seven games and will see just how valuable No. 37 is on and off the ice for them.