Throughout the Bruins-Lightning Eastern Conference Final, TheBruinsBlog.net will collaborate on Q&A features before every game with Jon Jordan 0f Beasts of the Southeast over at Kukla’s Korner. Here’s the first installment with the series finally ready to start Saturday.
Matt Kalman: Before I get started, Jon, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to do this little collaboration during the Eastern Conference Final. It’s been 19 years since the Bruins made it this far and I know my readers are as eager to know more about Tampa Bay as they are to read about their hometown team.
Jon Jordan: My pleasure, Matt – and likewise to you. Collaborating with other writers, whose work I hold in the highest regard, is something I always look forward to. The readers seem to appreciate the opposing perspective, as do I.
For this particular series, with a shot at playing for the Cup on the line, the intensity level is going to be through the roof. Perhaps our banter back and forth will catch a little of that fire. (Careful, though. I come in elbows-up!) However it all turns out, hopefully, the masses will come away entertained and informed…
MK: So, here are three questions for you before this series finally gets started Saturday:
I’ve been watching Guy Boucher’s daily press conferences. I am convinced that he’s a Bond villain with the ability to mind control. And it’s not just because of the scar. He looks at every questioner with such intensity and his stare looks like it could burn a hole in you. But seriously, I love how the guy listens to every question, thinks about his answer and then answers the inquiry directly. He doesn’t seem to have an agenda. I can tell that same mentality works with his players. But how is Boucher with in-game coaching? Do you expect him to match up any lines or D pairs against the Bruins? What about all the in-game line changes? What’s that all about and what are some likely changes we’ll see?
JJ: Listening to Coach Boucher respond to questions this season, or just to talk about hockey in general, has been a pleasure. And you’re spot-on, in terms of the intensity in his eyes. His fervor for the game is evident in that look and in every word he speaks. But, if you think there’s fire in his eyes when he’s looking back at one of us media hacks who has just asked him to explain this player’s mistake or that or why the power play is working, or not, or whatever, that look pales in comparison to the soul-clutching stares he has shot from the bench during games this season. Whether the target in his sights at those times is a player or an official, I’m often caught wondering if he might actually be able to fire laser beams from his pupils or explode one’s heart with his thoughts. In short, intense doesn’t even begin to describe this man.
At the same time, if it makes any sense, he keeps a pretty even keel, overall. The admirable temperance between unrivaled intensity and levelheadedness that Boucher has mastered for himself (and can seemingly flip a switch from one to the other) may actually be his strongest suit as a coach and, perhaps, the most impactful quality that he has passed along to his team. The Lightning, collectively, have adopted that intangible and it has translated to success, for the most part, all season long. As Boucher is with a question from a reporter, or a strategy in practice, or a lesson in a meeting, or the ebbs and flows of an individual game, the Bolts are focused on the task at hand until its completion. And then, quite simply, it’s onto the next one…
As far as in-game coaching goes, I think a lot of the same applies, though the Lightning know that what suits them best is a strict adherence to Boucher’s 1-3-1 system. The rare times during which they strayed this year are reflected in the sporadic lulls you’ll see in looking back at the regular season results and the postseason “training wheels” period of the Pittsburgh series that preceded their comeback from a 3-1 deficit. But they learn from their mistakes (and quickly, if necessary, as seen against the Penguins) and it’s all paying dividends now. So, you won’t be seeing much in the way of a variance in strategy from Boucher’s Bolts. Sticking with what works, though it sounds so simple, is the bottom line here and I think now, more than ever, Tampa Bay gets that.
Regarding matchups, I expect we’ll see a lot of Mattias Ohlund and Eric Brewer in a shutdown role against the Lucic-Krejci-Horton line, as we did against Ovechkin and company in the Tampa/Washington series. That said, if another line should step up, posing a greater offensive threat in Boucher’s eyes, we could certainly see a switch there. As for line-matching, if any forward unit is going to get a specific assignment with the intent of neutralizing the other side, it would be a line centered by former Bruin farmhand Nate Thompson, who has become an all-around stalwart for the Lightning and the epitome of a Boucher-type player (so much so, that his teammates referred to him as “Nate Boucher” for a time). Thompson will either plug in alongside Sean Bergenheim and Dominic Moore or will skate with Adam Hall in another line combination (sometimes with captain Vincent Lecavalier, even) in the many mixes of Boucher’s forward lines.
And on that note, as I said in our series preview, don’t expect the same lines to stick throughout entire games with this Lightning squad. Sometimes, you’ll see a merger of the top two lines to create a “super” line of sorts, with Lecavalier joining Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. Steve Downie has seen a lot of time with Bergenheim and Moore in these playoffs, adding some spunk and a little more offensive potential (to great effect to boot) to that unit than they might have with Thompson, who makes it more of a two-way trio. Teddy Purcell has jumped from line to line a bit in the postseason, tallying 11 points in total. Ryan Malone can either grind with the muckers (and muck with the grinders) if need be or fit in somewhere in the top-six. And let’s not forget the return of Simon Gagne, who missed the final three games of the Washington series, as a bit of an X-factor here. For the most part, there are situational elements that will influence what shape Tampa Bay’s forward lines take.
But, again, I wouldn’t get used to too much here …
MK: Sean Bergenheim’s playoff production reminds me of when I was a kid and Washington’s John Druce erupted against the New York Rangers. I got a good laugh out of that against a friend of mine who was a die-hard Rangers guy. That kid got the last laugh in 94 but I didn’t know him by then. Back to the Lightning: Did you see any hint that Bergenheim was capable of this and do you expect him to keep it up? Either way, is there another Lightning player you predict will come out of nowhere to be an offensive force in this series?
JJ: Bergenheim is another guy who very well embodies what this Lightning team was supposed to be all about from the get-go. He had a clear-cut role on this club out of training camp and has flourished under Boucher. His coach and teammates have noted that, even when he isn’t scoring, he’s making an impact on every shift and, recently, Boucher reminded one and all of Bergenheim’s penchant for coming through in the clutch, which he exhibited at several times during the regular season when others weren’t scoring and has taken that to a whole new level here in the postseason, obviously.
But I watched Bergenheim for years with the New York Islanders prior to his arrival here in Tampa and I honestly always thought he would be a sure-fire contributor in the NHL. That his game has translated to the level of playoff success that it has isn’t that much of a surprise to me. He’s fast. He’s responsible. He has an underrated offensive skill set. More than anything, though, he’s a hustler (earning that very nickname – “The Hustler” – from his coach). Pair that intangible with the knack for the clutch goal that we’ve seen out of Bergenheim and you have just about all you can ask for in a playoff player.
Okay, so maybe I didn’t exactly see him on pace, potentially, for 16 goals or so in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but I’ve long thought that Bergenheim might thrive in the right situation. Clearly, that’s what’s happening here.
I don’t know that this would qualify as a player “coming out of nowhere” in this series but I expect big things out of the returning Gagne. Before getting dropped by Washington’s Scott Hannan, Gagne has seven points in Tampa Bay’s first eight playoff games and, let’s not kid ourselves, his playoff experience and whether or not he could replicate the type of performances he’s had for Philadelphia in the second season over the years is exactly what was going to determine his value to this team in the end all along. Now that he’s ready to get back in there, Gagne adds even more punch to a Lightning team that’s already receiving thorough contributions from up and down the forward ranks. He’s one to watch in this series for sure.
One thing to keep in mind about the Tampa Bay Lightning too is that everybody’s getting it done for them right now, offensively and otherwise. That’s dangerous. As Adam Hall is the only regular forward without a goal in the playoffs thus far, it wouldn’t shock me at all to see him pot the first one of the series, after what we’ve seen so far…
MK: I’m interested in Victor Hedman because I remember interviewing him at his draft and being impressed with his maturity. In his rookie year, I liked his game but I wasn’t impressed the few times I saw him this year. How would you rate his development and how do you figure he’ll factor in this series? Am I holding him to too high a standard because of what we’ve seen from Tyler Myers?
JJ: Interesting, Matt, that you say you weren’t overly impressed when you saw Hedman play this year. Perhaps I’ll touch on that with a question for you in turn!
As a rookie, he fizzled out after 40 games or so, and downright struggled at times. This season has been a steady progression for the young Swede and these current playoffs a reassuring microcosm thereof.
I keep going back to game three of the Pittsburgh series when Hedman made a big mistake in trying to pinch off an attacking Mike Rupp at the blue line, missing the Pens forward and creating a 2-on-1 on which Arron Asham tallied to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead. It was overaggression on Hedman’s part – a small example of a team that was collectively overaggressive in their first home playoff game – and, more simply, a mental mistake. But he learned from that very play, accepted responsibility for the gaffe postgame and has been a force for the Lightning in these playoffs at both ends of the rink since, taking care of his own end effectively, withstanding aggression from the opposition, and beautifully leading a rush on occasion as well.
Some in the Pittsburgh camp leading up to that series thought Hedman might be taken off of his game by turning up the physical play and getting after him a bit beyond the whistle, either intending to intimidate him or antagonize him into taking a bad retaliatory penalty. He’s shown maturity beyond his years overall this season and, in the playoffs, has been disciplined with regard to this approach from opponents, not shying away from anything physical (and why would he? Kid’s a monster at 6’6″/230!) and only taking two minors to this point as well.
On the losing side of the plus/minus rating in the opening round at minus-4, Hedman has continually steadied things and was an aggregate plus-1 in the four games against the Caps. He’s been given a wealth of responsibility in just his second season (and first crack at the playoffs too, remember), eating up more minutes (21:59 ATOI) than any other Bolt, save for Brewer (26:09), and handling as much adeptly.
As they will for the rest of the Lightning, the Bruins, with their combination of size and skill, will present quite the challenge for Hedman but Tampa Bay has every confidence that the coming of age process for the second-year defenseman will continue in the Eastern Conference Final.