|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2011||[Print without images]|
OK, hands up for all you puck fans who had the Tampa Bay Lightning visiting the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals.
Sorry, your vote doesn't count, Peter Chiarelli. Nor yours, Dwayne Roloson.
Regardless of whether fans believed either team was capable of such a playoff run, this East final looms as a terrific battle between two deep, committed teams. Yes, injuries are going to be a factor, as the Bruins likely will start the series without their best all-around center and leading playoff point producer, Patrice Bergeron, which will open the door for rookie Tyler Seguin to see his first NHL playoff action. And the Lightning still will be without defenseman Pavel Kubina, although it looks like Simon Gagne will return to start the series.
Nevertheless, this matchup features two teams with good balance up front, dominant, veteran goaltending and and blue lines that might bend a little but have broken few times during the postseason.
Both teams struggled early in the postseason. The Bruins dropped their first two games at home against Montreal, and the Bolts fell behind 3-1 to Pittsburgh. But both rebounded nicely to win Game 7s before rolling through the second round to sweep aside favorites Philadelphia and Washington.
1. The big man and his buddy: No disrespect to Dennis Seidenberg, who is small neither in stature nor talent, but the Bruins' blue line begins and ends with captain Zdeno Chara. After a so-so start to the playoffs against Montreal, Chara was a beast against Philadelphia. He leads all Eastern Conference players in average ice time per night (28:41) and leads the playoff field with a plus-11 rating.
But what is perhaps more impressive is that Seidenberg, a deadline acquisition last season who was injured during last year's playoff run, ranks right behind Chara at 28:34 a night. Seidenberg has a goal and five assists but also logs the toughest minutes against opposing teams' top lines.
How did the Flyers' top guns make out against the Bruins? Not so well. How will the Bolts' top offensive players fare against the dynamic duo? We'll see.
2. Kaberle's time to shine, or more dimness? How unimpressive has Tomas Kaberle been? Well, consider that Shane Hnidy, who has seen action in only three games, is the only Boston defenseman with fewer points than Kaberle in the postseason. Yes, Kaberle (three points) is tied with Adam McQuaid and Johnny Boychuk for points, but they're not the guys who are supposed to help kick-start the Bruins' offense.
Kaberle has been a monster disappointment since coming over from Toronto before the deadline. Guess what? None of that will matter if he contributes in a meaningful way against the Lightning. Guess what? We don't expect it to happen.
The more intriguing question will be whether the Lightning's pressure forechecking, especially by their killer third line, will take advantage of Kaberle's tentativeness and turn the series in Tampa's favor. Stay tuned; Kaberle looks to play a role in the outcome of this series one way or another.
3. So special: It remains a mystery how a team could go nine straight playoff games without a power-play goal and be just around the corner from a trip to the Stanley Cup finals, but the Bruins did just that, going without a man-advantage goal until Game 3 against Philadelphia. They did score twice on their past nine attempts against the Flyers, but the task becomes significantly more challenging against a Tampa Bay team that has dominated on the penalty kill this spring.
The Lightning's ability to keep the Caps at bay on the power play was the deciding factor in their sweep (Washington scored just twice on 19 attempts in the second round, and one of those goals was a 5-on-3 effort). That came after Tampa Bay killed off 34 of 35 penalties against Pittsburgh in the first round. The Lightning, meanwhile, have scored at least one power-play goal in six of their 11 postseason games and are 5-1 when they score on the man advantage.
The Bruins are no slouches on the penalty kill (they allowed just two Flyers power-play markers on 14 attempts), but they have no chance in this series if they give up the special teams battle.
4. The old men in net: Given how unimpressed Dwayne Roloson was last round when we included the term "ancient" in our discussion of his, well, advanced age, we will leave it at this: Roloson is like a fine wine -- old, but really good. So fine is this wine that Roloson has won seven straight games. Jacques Plante, who won eight straight in 1969, is the only goalie in history who has won more consecutive games in the playoffs at age 40 or older. Determined? After Roloson was beaten by a rather ordinary James Neal shot in overtime to put the Bolts down 3-1 in the first round, Roloson has outplayed his counterparts at every turn, every night.
As for Tim Thomas, the Vezina Trophy nominee and former winner shook off some wobbles early in the Montreal series to help the B's rebound from a 2-0 series deficit. Then against Philly, Thomas' 52-save performance in Game 2 was the seminal moment in the Bruins' sweep of the Flyers. He allowed just four goals in the final three games of that series and now is on an 8-1 roll in these playoffs. Never mind youth being served; how about experience being served?
5. The Cup factor: Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn't, but with a Stanley Cup finals berth just four wins away, you have to think Cup experience counts for something when the game is on the line. If that's the case, you have to give the nod to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are enjoying terrific playoffs, combining for 25 points in 11 games. They represent two-thirds of the holdovers from the Lightning's 2004 run to the Cup. Kubina, the third member of that Cup-winning team, may or may not play depending on his recovery from a head injury sustained early in the Washington series.
But the Lightning also have guys who've been to the very edge of a Cup win, such as Ryan Malone and Adam Hall, who were in Pittsburgh when the Penguins lost in six games to Detroit in the 2008 Cup finals. Roloson led the Edmonton Oilers to the Cup finals in 2006 before getting injured in Game 1 of that series against Carolina. Dominic Moore was part of a gritty Montreal team that advanced to the last season's East finals. Gagne was with the Flyers when they came back from a 3-0 series deficit against Boston to advance to the Cup finals against Chicago.
The Bruins have lots of veteran experience in their lineup, but they don't have guys who have been down the Cup path other than Mark Recchi (Pittsburgh in 1991 and Carolina in 2006) and Shawn Thornton (Anaheim in 2007 as a role player). Chris Kelly and Andrew Ference have been to the finals with Ottawa and Calgary, respectively. So this will be about learning on the job as the Bruins enter their first conference finals since 1992.
• Balance versus balance: The Washington could not match the Lightning's so-called third line of Sean Bergenheim, Moore and Steve Downie, who have combined for 28 points in the playoffs. And the Caps really didn't have an answer for the other two units, either. The Bruins boast three players with five goals, one with four and seven more with two goals apiece. Can either team continue to get scoring from up and down the lineup? If the answer is both, this will be a long, entertaining series. If one team falters, there will be even greater pressure on special teams, and it ultimately may cost the team a berth in the Stanley Cup finals.
• Boston: Milan Lucic finally awoke from his playoff slumber in Game 4 of the East semifinal against Philadelphia. He scored twice, ending a 10-game playoff goal drought and a 15-game drought dating back to the end of the regular season. Maybe Lucic is finding his groove after a season that saw him score 30 times. If so, the Bruins' chances go up exponentially. If not, well, score one for the Lightning.
• Tampa Bay: Bergenheim has been a revelation this spring with seven goals, tying him for the playoff goal-scoring lead. And the timeliness of his goals has been even more impressive. The Lightning are 5-1 when Bergenheim scores, and he scored all seven goals at even strength. Can he keep it up? If he does, the door to the Stanley Cup finals will open that much easier for the Lightning.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• We love the Tampa Bay's determination and blend of youth and battle-tested veterans. Should be a great series that we think tips the Lightning's way. Lightning in six.