By S. Bradley

This is the first of numerous collaborations between TheBruinsBlog.net and Jon Jordan of Kukla’s Korner.

The Tampa Bay Lightning may be a bigger surprise participant than the Boston Bruins as an Eastern Conference Final participant and most pundits will undoubtedly give the Bruins the edge in the upcoming showdown between the two.

But these two clubs have followed an eerily similar path to get to where they are today.

Consider:

Identical regular season records of 46-25-11 for 103 points.

Seven-game battles in the opening round of the playoffs necessitating significant comebacks, with Boston down 2-0 to begin their series with Montreal and Tampa Bay having to rally back from a 3-1 deficit against Pittsburgh.

Clean, four-game sweeps of their higher-seeded second round opponents in Philadelphia for the Bruins and top-seeded Washington for the Lightning.

The stage, then, is set for breaking down a series between two teams that will each pose the biggest threat the other has seen to this point, with a shot to vie for the Stanley Cup on the line.

From a position-by-position view, to kick off our collaboration on the upcoming series, here’s how this one shapes up, in the eyes of myself on the Bruins’ side of things and Jon Jordan of Beasts of the Southeast at Kukla’s Korner.

Forwards

Tampa Bay
For the Lightning, the biggest strength up front so far this postseason has been the well-rounded contribution they have received. The big names have all done their part offensively, with Martin St. Louis leading all playoff scorers leaguewide with 13 points, Vincent Lecavalier just behind at 5-7-12 and Steven Stamkos proving to be a quick postseason study, coming through with a pair of key goals in the Washington series after a playoff debut against Pittsburgh that was uncharacteristically unspectacular, for the most part. But it is the play of several depth forwards that has defined Tampa Bay’s success in the playoffs to this point and just may define the rejuvenation of this franchise overall as well.

Sean Bergenheim’s seven goals gives him a share of the overall NHL postseason lead. Steve Downie ranks third in scoring for the Lightning with a pair of goals and 12 points and remains a nuisance for the opposition. Teddy Purcell ranks just behind Downie at 1-10-11. The two-way game of Dominic Moore is perfectly suited for playoff time and Nate Thompson has evolved into an effective, grinding shutdown center. Ryan Malone has showed a penchant for the clutch tally and Simon Gagne’s proven playoff prowess was just hitting its stride once again before an upper-body injury in game one of the Washington series put him on the shelf for games two-four. Adam Hall adds a veteran presence and is another workhorse in the Lightning stable.

Beyond the regulars, youngsters Blair Jones, Mattias Ritola and Dana Tyrell are ready to step in at any time and Jones did just that effectively when Gagne was lost, playing limited but impactful minutes for the Bolts. In total, Jones has dressed three times in these playoffs, Tyrell four times and Ritola once.

Gagne/By S. Bradley

Gagne is expected back for the start of this upcoming series, Tyrell is nursing what is believed to be a minor foot injury and Downie was given extra time to rest as the team returned to practice recently after some time off since eliminating the Capitals. Downie will go for sure but with Gagne back, Tyrell might find it difficult to once again crack the Lightning lineup, especially if Lightning head coach Guy Boucher goes with seven defensemen, as he often does.

Boucher has also been known to mix and match his lines quite a bit throughout any particular game, though during the playoffs, we’ve seen units staying together more consistently. Here are some combos we’ve seen in the postseason thus far, which is about as best we can do, in terms of what can be expected, given the likelihood of some ongoing alterations (this incarnation involves 11 forwards, to accommodate the expected extra d-man):

Ryan Malone-Steven Stamkos-Martin St. Louis
Simon Gagne-Vincent Lecavalier-Teddy Purcell
Sean Bergenheim-Dominic Moore-Steve Downie
Lecavalier-Nate Thompson-Adam Hall

Boston
After getting just a handful of points – although Nathan Horton’s two overtime goals were the types of plays that history are made of – from their first line in the first round against Montreal, the Bruins rode the hot hand of Horton, David Krejci and Milan Lucic past Philadelphia in the second round. That trio combined for 19 points against the Flyers. With Patrice Bergeron seemingly out for at least one game, if not longer, because of a mild concussion this line will have to handle the bulk of the offense and up its defensive responsibility. Krejci’s line has handled shutdown duties before, but obviously doesn’t tackle that task as well as Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Mark Recchi do when healthy and together.

When Chris Kelly fills in for Bergeron, that second line takes on a whole new dynamic. While he has produced four goals, seven points in the playoffs, Kelly doesn’t usually have the offensive bent Bergeron brings. So this line could become more of a shutdown line. That would leave it up to the third line to pick up the offensive slack. Michael Ryder and Rich Peverley cooled off in the second round but still created tons of chances they didn’t finish. Whether Tyler Seguin is ready for life in the NHL postseason remains to be seen. In a perfect world, he steps in and uses his speed and wicked shot to make the third line as productive as the second line was against the Flyers. However, his unwillingness to go in the corners or get his nose dirty in front of the net earned him his spot in the press box to start the playoffs. This line could really drop off if Seguin doesn’t bring the intensity.

Campbell/By S. Bradley

With Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton finally getting a regular left winger in Daniel Paille toward the end of the regular season, the Bruins once again had one of the league’s top fourth lines when the playoffs started. Campbell and Thornton struggled after Marchand was moved up the lineup and numerous players filled that left wing spot. Head coach Claude Julien used his fourth line sparingly in the first two series, but they had some important shifts – especially in games when Boston was protecting a lead. Their ability to dump pucks in and keep teams hemmed in comes in handy when the Bruins are up.

Despite Kelly’s emergence and Seguin’s insertion, the Bruins still lack the speed Tampa Bay boasts.

Boston’s going to have to use its size to win battles on dump-ins and in front of the net and try to get in Dwayne Roloson’s face as often as possible. Without Bergeron, it also remains to be seen how lines two and three will gel and produce offensively.

Expected lines (with Patrice Bergeron):

Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton
Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Mark Recchi
Chris Kelly-Rich Peverley-Michael Ryder
Daniel Paille-Gregory Campbell-Shawn Thornton

(without Bergeron):
Lucic-Krejci-Horton
Marchand-Kelly-Recchi
Ryder-Peverley-Tyler Seguin
Paille-Campbell-Thornton

Defensemen

Tampa Bay
The Lightning blue line has often been labeled an area of weakness but the group, as a whole, has done a fine job during these playoffs. Trade deadline acquisition Eric Brewer leads all Tampa Bay d-men in time on ice per game, eating up a shade over 26 minutes on average. Brewer also leads Bolts blueliners in scoring (1-5-6) and has been part of a shut-down pair alongside Mattias Ohlund that draws the opposition’s top offensive threats consistently.

Beyond that top pair, 20-year-old NHL sophomore Victor Hedman has shown signs of blossoming before our eyes during the playoffs, averaging nearly 22 minutes per game, playing in all situations. Hedman, like several other members of the Lightning, had a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights look early in the Pittsburgh series, but adjusted quickly and has been shining ever since.

Both Brett Clark and Mike Lundin play quieter, steady games on Tampa’s back end and each is a plus player through 11 games so far.

Marc-Andre Bergeron, who capped game four against Washington with the very booming point shot on the power play he was brought in for, can serve Tampa Bay well in that specialist’s role and the serviceable Randy Jones will probably continue to be called upon for spot duty in the absence of Pavel Kubina, who the Bolts will likely be without, at least for the start of the upcoming series, as he was lost to a likely head injury in game one against the Capitals and has not played or practiced since.

Matt Smaby lies in wait, in case of emergency, to step in on the back end for Tampa Bay.

Expect these defense pairings with regularity (and the regular rotation of Jones as that seventh d-man, if Boucher continues to go with that lineup tweak):

Mattias Ohlund-Eric Brewer
Brett Clark-Victor Hedman
Marc-Andre Bergeron-Mike Lundin
Randy Jones

McQuaid/By S. Bradley

Boston
The return of Adam McQuaid from a sprained neck, aided by the length break between the second and third rounds, should be a huge boost to a defense corps that already did a great job in helping goaltender Tim Thomas limit Philadelphia to just seven goals in four games (just two in the last two). With Shane Hnidy hardly getting any ice time and Tomas Kaberle having his minutes cut against a difficult matchup, the other four blueliners saw their minutes increase. Any drop-off in performance, however, wasn’t visible because the Bruins relied on their system once they got leads, especially in Game 3 and 4. Now with McQuaid, a solid stay-at-home defender with size and strength back, the Bruins should be able to tax their top four less and mix and match a little on the second pair to chase around whichever of the Lightning’s top lines they don’t assigned to Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. Don’t be surprised to see the D pairs tweaked a bit, as Johnny Boychuk or Andrew Ference could play with Chara if the Bruins decide they want Seidenberg on his own pair to slow down one of the top lines.

This group, minus Kaberle who didn’t arrive until February, handled the Lightning’s 1-3-1 well in the regular season. But if there’s a weakness in Boston’s D corps, it’s the ability to advance the puck without passing it, so the Lightning would be wise to make guys like Boychuk and Ference hang onto it and force them into quick decisions. The Bruins might up Kaberle’s minutes with the puck movement in mind, but that could weaken them a lot defensively, especially in Tampa with the first change. There’s no group of defensemen that plays better when the Bruins focus on their positional play and work together within the system. There has been a tendency for guys to get running around against quick teams like the Lightning.

Expected pairings:

Zdeno Chara-Dennis Seidenberg
Tomas Kaberle-Adam McQuaid
Andrew Ference-Johnny Boychuk

Goaltending

Tampa Bay
Roloson has had a moment or two of weakness amid an otherwise MVP-like run through the first two rounds for the Lightning. Given the impact of his overall body of work, those rare blips on the radar can be looked at as just that. By and large, Roloson has been exactly what the Bolts were looking for upon his acquisition from the New York Islanders on New Year’s Day. In the regular season, he stabilized a glaring area of need, with then-regulars Dan Ellis and Mike Smith unable to steady things in the Lightning crease with any consistency. And now, when it really counts, Roloson has stepped things up even further.

The word on Roloson before his arrival in Tampa Bay was that the ageless wonder brought a battle mentality to the goaltending position and, as that has been proven to be true, what more can a team possibly want out of a netminder at this most crucial time of year? Intangibles, of course, are one thing but Roloson has backed up his mental fortitude with NHL-best playoff numbers in both goals-against average (2.01) and save percentage (.941).

Smith awaits as Roloson’s backup should the need arise and the Lightning have renewed confidence in their former number one, who used a late season stint in the American League to simplify his game and was solid upon his return to the NHL level in spot starts down the stretch.

Thomas/By S. Bradley

Boston
What can you write about Tim Thomas that hasn’t already been written? The obvious Vezina Trophy favorite was actually better this season than he was in his Vezina year of ’08-09. He played with even more confidence and was as focused as could be. Should the Lightning – especially their bottom six forwards – get in Thomas’ face a little bit, they might be able to knock him off stride. But over teams have tried and failed all season. Thomas’ glove hand can be shaky and he’s had spurts of trouble with rebound control through the first two rounds. The Lightning like to shoot as much as they can, and that’ll be their best bet to try to solve Thomas.
If the unthinkable happened and Thomas was forced to the sidelines, thousands of New Englanders would dive into the Atlantic. But the Bruins trust Tuukka Rask, who suffered something of a sophomore slump but is still a goaltender many teams would want as their No. 1.

Power Play

Tampa Bay
Special teams are vital to playoff success, obviously, and with the Lightning clicking at a league-best 26.7% on the power play, their inclusion in the Eastern Conference’s final round starts to seem a natural fit. With the guns that this team has, opponents simply cannot afford to take penalties and put themselves at risk of game-changing momentum swings.

On the man advantage, Tampa Bay shows another side to its all-hands-on-deck trademark, with 13 different players having registered at least a point on the power play so far in the playoffs. The usual suspects in Lecavalier, St. Louis and Stamkos head that list at forward and Brewer’s four points leads all contributions by defensemen.

Ryder/By S. Bradley

Boston
You could get a laugh anywhere in Boston by telling a Bruins power play joke through the first two rounds. Somehow, the Bruins got by Montreal without scoring on the power play. And then they didn’t fare much better in the second round.

With slightly improved play over the last couple Flyers games, and an actual goal 5-on-4 goal in Game 7 (they scored a 5-on-3 goal in Game 6), the Bruins are hoping the jokes’ up. Again, Boston will miss Bergeron, a key playmaker off the half wall who can also move back and play the point when necessary (and sometimes does this in 5-on-3 situations). It looks like Ryder will slide in next to Recchi and Marchand up front on one quintet, which could give that group some grit but maybe not enough finish. Splitting up Chara and Kaberle (one plays with Boychuk and one with Seidenberg now) was a long-awaited and necessary move that seems to have opened up more plays for the forwards with there being more unpredictability at the points.

Krejci, Lucic and Horton heated up as a trio in the last round, and Lucic even scored the 5-on-4 goal. So if they can keep carrying over their even-strength play, the Bruins might click at a better than 5.4-percent success rate. It’s safe to say that if they don’t, the Bruins won’t get out of this series with the victory.

Penalty Kill

Tampa Bay
Much has been made about Tampa Bay’s penalty killers rallying around their leader, assistant coach Wayne Fleming, who continues to recover from brain surgery following the discovery of a malignant tumor – news that was only made public around the time the playoffs were to begin. While the work ethic of this group has never been questioned, they’ve more than done their ailing coach proud in cranking that up even further, killing off 51 of 54 opposition power play chances for an astonishing rate of 94.4%.

More than any specific technical aspect, that workman-like approach is the key to Tampa Bay’s success in killing penalties. As the old adage goes, a power play must at least match the effort and intensity of the shorthanded unit it faces and the Lightning, at a sheer minimum, make that a daunting task for the opposition.

Brewer/By S. Bradley

Were there a specific area, in terms of execution, in which Bolts penalty killers have excelled, it would have to be in keeping power play scoring chances largely to the perimeter areas. Even at even strength, the Lightning have allowed a significant increase in the shots against column during the playoffs but quality scoring chances against Tampa Bay, particularly when a man down, have been hard to come by.

Thompson, Hall, Moore and Bergenheim are your primary hardhat types to watch at forward when the Bolts are a man down, while Brewer, Ohlund, Hedman and Clark eat up the bulk of shorthanded minutes on defense.

Boston
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Bergeron will be missed when the Bruins are shorthanded. Led by Campbell, Paille, Marchand, Kelly and Peverley, the Bruins’ penalty kill still has plenty of talent. But no one plays in more key situations, wins more big faceoffs or blocks more important shots than Bergeron. Recchi and Krejci, who hasn’t killed penalties for a while now, could be asked to pick up some of the slack. But it’s vital for the Bruins, with or without Bergeron, to stay out of the box against the vaunted Tampa Bay power play.

Predictions

Jordan
In breaking down the end result of the Washington series, it became clear that very little technical analysis was needed at all. More than anything, the Lightning were a combination of a series of clichés used to describe a team full of heart. They wanted it more than the Capitals. They had “it”. They prevailed in all of the hard work areas, battled, kept focus and willed their way to four straight wins. All of those intangible qualities will translate well toward success against Boston.

But the Bruins are a different animal. They have every bit of the gusto that the Lightning do. They’re fantastically talented and have scoring depth. They get excellent goaltending. They are once again big and bad, as their ancestors from years ago were when making that a Beantown trademark.

But the special teams stick out to me here, especially if Bergeron is lost for any significant time. Strike that, actually, because as we all know, even a single game in the postseason counts as significant time and can be all the momentum swing a series needs.

Pair Boston’s power play struggles, their penalty kill without Bergeron and Tampa Bay’s league-best special teams on both sides of that ever-important postseason swing factor with the heart these Bolts have shown and picking against the hometown squad here for the third consecutive series has become impossible for me.

The locals won’t like it. They’ll call me the king of all jinxes. But, since the Lightning wouldn’t believe in that kind of hocus pocus, I won’t cave with what my gut is telling me now.

This one is going the distance but Tampa Bay has it in them to vie for the Stanley Cup. Now.
Lightning in seven

Kalman
Something happened after April 16 that really can’t be explained. After going down 0-2 to Montreal, the Bruins were supposed to be toast. They were too slow, not willing to pay the price and a giveaway machine on defense. Kelly was a waste of a second-round pick, Marchand was wilting under his first NHL pressure, Tim Thomas had lost his magic and Julien … well we know where everyone predicted he was headed once the series was done. Well, as The Heavy Sings: How you like me now?

Kelly/By S. Bradley

The Bruins have won eight of their last nine to reach the conference finals for the first time since 1992. Kelly is a two-way force, Thomas is nearly impenetrable and Julien tweaked his defense pairs so that there’s near-flawless synergy on the back end. With the first line joining the fray in the second round, the Bruins have lived up to every expectation general manager Peter Chiarelli ever expressed for his club.

Now along come the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite their statements to the contrary, I could see the Bruins taking the fifth-seeded Lightning a little lightly at the outset of the series. That’s just their nature. But unlike recently Julien-coached Bruins squads, this edition seems better at refocusing when the going gets tough. This year’s players seem to really trust each other and the system the way championship teams typically do.

The Bruins are going to have their problems working their way through the neutral zone and have a hard time solving Roloson. But the Lightning will have the same struggles against Thomas and difficulty getting out of their own end against Boston’s forecheck. The home-ice advantage and the lessons learned from the last two springs of disappointing endings will pay off in the end for the Bruins.
Boston in seven