TAMPA, Fla. -- The Boston Bruins can punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 21 years with a win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals at the St. Pete Times Forum on Wednesday night.
After taking Game 5 by a 3-1 count, the momentum appears to have swung back to the Bruins, but as this series and the playoffs as a whole have shown, momentum can swing away just as fast as you obtained it.
In order for the Bruins to close out this series and not give the Lightning another chance in a do-or-die Game 7 at TD Garden on Friday, they must follow these six keys to success:
Match the Lightning's early intensity and desperation. Facing elimination, the Lightning are sure to come out flying as they try to set the tone early. The place will be rocking from the opening faceoff, and if the Bruins want to match that intensity and quiet the fans they will need to play with the same desperation as the Lightning and dictate the game so it caters to their style.
An early lead would be the best-case scenario for the Bruins, but as we saw in Game 5 (when Tampa took a 1-0 lead in the first two minutes), if they can withstand that first wave from the Bolts, they should be able to gradually sway the game their way and frustrate the Lightning and their fans.
That is not to say the Bruins should sit back or take a prevent approach, but if they come out strong and still aren't winning, they need to stick with their game plan and know they can come back. Take the best punch the Lightning have to give and come roaring back with a flurry of counterpunches.
Play physical but disciplined hockey. In order to match the intensity of the Lightning, the Bruins must play their physical, hard-working style of hockey from the opening faceoff and throughout the game. They must be strong on the forecheck and back-checking, finish their hits and play hard on the puck and the Tampa players as they enter the zone.
But in doing all of the above, the Bruins must maintain their discipline and play a smart brand of physical hockey. The last thing they want to do is give a desperate and overdue Tampa Bay power play chances.
The Lightning have not had the success on the power play that they had coming into this round, but they are bound to break out if given enough chances. With the Bruins still suffering from an anemic power play, they can't put Tampa on the man-advantage as that could be the slim margin to sway victory to the Lightning.
Somehow score on the power play. The Bruins were 0-for-4 on the power play in Game 5, have not scored a power-play goal since Game 2 and are 2-for-19 in the series. That failure to convert on the man-advantage hurt them in Game 4 when they couldn't score on an early second-period power play and subsequently blew a 3-0 lead en route to a 5-3 loss.
While they have gotten away with their power-play failures for the most part, sooner or later it could come back to haunt them. In an elimination game, they would greatly benefit from at least one power-play goal.
Control the neutral zone. If Tampa can utilize its skill and speed through the neutral zone, chances are it will get plenty of scoring chances. That's why the Bruins must do their best to clog up the neutral zone and not let the Lightning enter their side of the ice with ease.
Going the other way, the Bruins must make crisp and precise outlet passes and stay away from the cute and risky plays. The last thing they need is to have a repeat of Game 4, when they repeatedly forced plays that weren't there and turned the puck over. The Lightning will burn them if they do so in Game 6. The Bruins need to take the play to the outside and play a north-south game as they skate through mid-ice.
B's big guns must deliver; Tampa's must be shut down. The Bruins' top line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Horton came up big in Game 5 (each contributing a point) as did the likes of Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara, both with assists. Meanwhile, Lightning superstars Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos were basically shut down, with only Stamkos getting an assist.
The Bruins will need an identical performance from both their big guns and the Lightning's big guns. When players of this caliber score and have big games, the rest of their team often feeds off their success. The Bruins need their stars to show the way and not let the Lightning gain any momentum or energy from the play of their key players.
Don't look too far ahead, stay within the moment and have fun. It would be only natural for the Bruins to think about and maybe even obsess over what this game means for them. There is no avoiding the magnitude of the game, but the Bruins have done a great job of practicing what they preach when they say that they take it "one game at time" and isolate each playoff game, not looking at the status of the series.
But this is a possible clinching game, and those are the toughest to win. The Bruins must channel their excitement into controlled energy on the ice. They have to stay within the moment.
All of that being said, they need to understand how lucky they are to be playing for the right to play for the Stanley Cup and enjoy the moment. They need to have fun out there because there is no guarantee any of them will ever be in this position again.
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.