After four games, the Eastern Conference finals between the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning remain a seesaw affair, with neither club seemingly capable of gaining an edge.
In Game 3, the Bruins struck for an early first-period goal, then rode their defense and the strong goaltending of Tim Thomas to a 2-0 victory to take a 2-1 series lead.
Sloppy defensive play by the Lightning and shaky goaltending from Dwayne Roloson resulted in a 3-0 first-period lead for the Bruins in Game 4, as the series momentum appeared to have shifted firmly in their favor.
The Lightning returned for the second period having replaced Roloson with backup Mike Smith. Given the score at that point, it appeared the Bruins had an insurmountable lead.
And then, inexplicably, the bottom fell out for the Bruins.
Thomas, who had been a pillar of strength in his shutout victory in Game 3, was rattled by the traffic around his net as the Lightning pushed to get on the scoreboard. A careless turnover by Thomas behind his own net resulted in a goal by Tampa Bay forward Teddy Purcell, and the floodgates opened. Purcell struck again roughly a minute later, followed by unlikely playoff goal-scoring leader Sean Bergenheim potting the tying goal just shy of three minutes after that.
The Bruins appeared in shock. Despite attempts to put more offensive pressure on the Lightning, Smith kicked aside all 21 shots fired his way.
Almost seven minutes into the third period, Simon Gagne completed the comeback by giving the Lightning their first lead of the game. Martin St. Louis added an insurance marker into an empty Bruins net late in the period to ice the win for the Lightning and tie the best-of-seven series at 2-2 heading back to Boston.
As this series moves forward, the goaltending of both clubs bears watching.
Thomas overcame a shaky start to this year’s playoffs to anchor the Bruins in series victories over Montreal and Philadelphia, and his shutout performance in Game 3 appeared to confirm he had overcome his struggles earlier in this series.
But the Lightning’s crease crashing appeared to rattle Thomas in Game 4. Unless the Bruins’ defense can do a better job of protecting Thomas’ crease and clearing traffic in front of him, the Lightning will keep trying to rattle his confidence.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher, meanwhile, could soon be facing a decision between Roloson or Smith in this series.
Roloson is arguably the main reason the Lightning made their surprising march to the conference finals, upsetting the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals along the way. But, like Thomas, this series hasn’t been particularly memorable for Roloson, having been pulled twice in favor of Smith, whose style of play and puck handling has thus far proved unbeatable in this series.
Boucher appears willing to return with Roloson in Game 5, but if “Rollie the Goalie” gets the hook again in this series, Smith could end up taking over full time.
In the Western Conference finals, meanwhile, the Vancouver Canucks have taken a commanding 3-1 series lead over the San Jose Sharks. They have the opportunity to close out the series back in Vancouver on Tuesday and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the third time in franchise history.
The Canucks’ special teams were the deciding factors in Games 3 and 4.
In Game 3, their penalty-killing struggled, giving up two first-period power-play goals to the Sharks. In the second period, already down 3-0, the Canucks had two back-to-back five-on-three situations but failed to capitalize on the opportunities. Had they been able to do so, it might have changed the outcome of the game, which the Sharks ultimately won 4-3.
It was a different story in Game 4, as the Canucks killed off five consecutive penalties, including three in the first period, then struck for three goals on three consecutive man-advantage situations in the second period. They opened a 3-0 lead on their way to a 4-2 win and control of the series.
There was some concern about how the Canucks’ defense would perform after it lost Christian Ehrhoff and Aaron Rome to injuries in Game 3, but Keith Ballard and call-up Chris Tanev answered the call and played well as the third pairing. Ballard laid out the best hit of the series, sending Sharks winger Jamie McGinn pinwheeling head over heels with a first-period hip check.
Vancouver’s best forwards were silent in Game 3 but made their presence felt in Game 4. Henrik Sedin set up all four Canucks goals. His brother Daniel assisted on three of them. Ryan Kesler scored the first of Vancouver’s three power-play markers.
Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, criticized for giving up three first-period goals in Game 3, silenced his critics by rebounding with a solid effort in Game 4, turning aside 33 shots. Sharks netminder Antti Niemi, meanwhile, faced only 13 shots in that game but gave up four goals.
Compounding the Sharks’ struggles in Game 4 was what appeared to be a shoulder injury suffered midway through the third period by team captain Joe Thornton. He was hurt on a check by Canucks forward Raffi Torres, making Thornton questionable to suit up for Game 5 on Tuesday.
Another problem for the Sharks have been the play of sniper Dany Heatley, who has only one goal in his past 11 games and none in this series. If the Sharks hope to stave off elimination, they will need Heatley to start cashing in.