With the Stanley Cup playoff field down to four, here’s the breakdown of the Eastern Conference finals between the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning.
How they got here: The Bruins avenged their series defeat last spring to Philadelphia, sweeping the Flyers in their rematch. The Lightning swept the regular-season Conference-leading Washington Capitals in the biggest series upset thus far in this year’s playoffs.
Strengths: Both teams have superb goaltending, with the Lightning’s Dwayne Roloson and the Bruins’ Tim Thomas currently sitting at Nos. 1-2 in playoff goalie stats. The two teams also have plenty of offensive punch, but the Lightning may have a slight edge, as they’re also getting contributions from checkers such as Sean Bergenheim and Dominic Moore. However, the Bruins might have more of an edge in the physical department, plus they can count on Norris Trophy nominee Zdeno Chara to anchor their defense.
The Lightning have a distinct advantage in special teams, with the second-best penalty kill and third-best power play, but the Bruins have been much better in the faceoff circle this spring. Four Lightning defensemen — Eric Brewer, Mathias Ohlund, Brett Clark and Victor Hedman — are the leaders this postseason in blocked shots.
Weaknesses: The Bruins’ offensive attack may have suffered a serious blow when leading scorer Patrice Bergeron was sidelined by a “mild” concussion in the final game against the Flyers, which could force him to miss at least the first two games of this series. Their special teams have also suffered, entering this series with the worst power play and second-worst penalty killing among all conference finalists. Puck-moving defenseman Tomas Kaberle — only 3 points in 11 games — has been a major disappointment.
The Lightning lack a blueline stud of the caliber of Boston’s Chara and don’t have much goalie depth to call upon if Roloson should struggle or get hurt. Despite their shot-blocking prowess the Lightning have still allowed a lot of shots, which could become a factor if this series grinds on.
Players to watch: A lot of attention has been focused on the Lightning’s best forwards, such as Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos, but it’s been their grinders who are making names for themselves as clutch scorers. Steve Downie is tied for second with Lecavalier in team scoring with 12 points, while Bergenheim and Moore have formed a lethal offensive 1-2 punch. Bruins rookie Brad Marchand is second on the team in points, while Nathan Horton has steadily improved as the postseason has gone on. Milan Lucic, the Bruins’ regular-season scoring leader, appears to have regained his scoring touch after struggling early in the playoffs.
Who will win: Both clubs advanced to the conference finals by beating teams which were strong either defensively or offensively, but this is the first time they’ll face teams with more balance in their respective games. Don’t expect this one to be over quickly, as they appear very evenly matched. But the Lightning’s advantage in special teams, combined with the leadership of St. Louis and Lecavalier, who were part of the championship team in 2004, could give them the edge over the Bruins. Lightning in seven.