Eastern Conference Finals Preview
With both teams having time off after sweeping the second round opponents, there's been extra time for several injured players to heal up. The most important injury, in this writer's opinion, will need more time to heal. Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins' best face-off man and top playmaker with 10 assists in 12 playoff games, is out indefinitely with a concussion after a hit from the Flyers' Claude Giroux in Game 4. This injury will not only have a trickle-down effect throughout the Bruins lineup (more on that later), but it just may swing the balance of power in the series.
Each team has been rolling three scoring lines in these playoffs but the Bergeron injury changes the Bruins' dynamic at forward. It will require a superlative effort from the top line of Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Orton to counterbalance Bergeron's absence and the fact that Lucic finally ending his playoff scoring drought in Game 4 vs. Philadelphia bodes well. While rookie and No. 2 overall pick Tyler Seguin will draw back into the lineup, he hasn't played since April 10 and he hasn't scored a goal/point since March 17. Seguin will play on the fourth line, perhaps getting some minutes on the second power-play unit. The big question is who plays with Brad Marchand and Mark Recchi on the second line?
There appears to be three possibilities: Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille, or Chris Kelly. The problem with putting Kelly in there is that it would likely mess up the cohesion that the Kelly – Rich Perverley – Michael Ryder line have enjoyed thus far in the postseason. It would be prudent to leave Kelly where he is, though he's certainly capable of playing top-six minutes. In the past, as an Ottawa Senator, Kelly performed admirably replacing an injured Jason Spezza on the first line at center.
Bergeron is second in the playoffs in faceoff percentage, first among players still active, at 64.2%. The next best Bruin is David Krejci, who ranks 17th at 50.6%. Bergeron's absence hurts the Bruins' offense, power-play, and penalty-kill.
The Lightning should have Simon Gagne back for the Conference Finals, meaning that they will have an edge over the Bruins with three healthy and productive lines: Gagne-Vinny Lecavalier- Teddy Purcell, Ryan Malone- Steven Stamkos- Martin St. Louis, and Sean Bergenheim- Dominic Moore- Steve Downie. While Bergeron's injury leaves the Bruins' with just Krejci as a decent faceoff option the Bolts have three centers at or near 50% - Stamkos (50.4), Moore (50.3), and Lecavalier (48.4). The depth of scoring on the Lightning has been impressive, as Downie has 12 points, Purcell has 11 and Bergenheim has eight, including seven goals. Meanwhile, St. Louis is tied for the playoff scoring lead at 13 points and Lecavalier is playing like he's in his prime with 10 goals over his last 15 games.
Edge: Tampa Bay
The Bruins should have 6-5 defenseman Adam McQuaid available for Game 1 after he missed the last two games of the second round with a sprained neck after missing the Flyers' Mike Richards on an attempted bodycheck and went face first into the boards. The quintet of McQuaid, along with Captain Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk, Denis Seidenberg, and Andrew Ference provide a level of physicality that Tampa Bay has yet to face in the postseason. This will be a very physical series and the Bruins best hope is to wear down the Lightning's deeper group of skilled and faster forwards. Tomas Kaberle remains a work in progress, as far as being an asset to the Bruins. Kaberle's reluctance to shoot, he has but 14 shots in 11 games including four games where he didn't hit the net once, is an ongoing issue and further handicaps a struggling Bruins power play this postseason (2 goals in 11 games).
Tampa Bay has been playing a 1-3-1 since the onset of the playoffs. By only sending in one fore-checker and keeping three skaters between the blueline with one D-man back in their own zone, the opposition is finding it near impossible to bring the puck into the Bolts' zone. They are being forced to play dump and chase and there's always one guy back to retrieve the puck. This 1-3-1 also does a good job of protecting the less than overwhelming Tampa defensive corps. Furthermore, by dressing seven D-men nightly (and 11 forwards) they can limit most of Marc-Andre Bergeron's minutes to the power-play, where his knee-high slap shot is a deadly weapon. The injury to Pavel Kubina remains significant, despite the seven-man defensive group, as he's one of the few D-men that Tampa has that is a legitimate top-four defender. Aside from Kubina, who uses his large 6-4/220 frame to clear the net, they have just two guys that most would consider top-four caliber – Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman. Kubina (upper body) has yet to resume skating since being injured in Game 1 against Washington. Randy Jones, whilst not a top-four on most teams, has played reasonably well in Kubina's absence and made a terrific pass to set up the winner in overtime in Game 2 vs. Washington. Jones is not Kubina, however.
The Bruins' Tim Thomas set an NHL record this regular season with a .938 SV %. He also posted a league-leading 2.00 GAA and had nine shutouts, a career-high. The postseason has not had any adverse effect on Thomas, who's gone 8-3 with a 2.03 GAA in 11 playoff games and .937 SV %. Thomas' unorthodox style and athleticism will pose a big challenge to the Lightning, who have been effective on the counter attack with their 1-3-1 set up. Historically Thomas has been successful against Tampa – he's 10-4-0 against them with a 2.26 GAA and .930 SV %. He went 3-0 this season with impressive peripherals – 1.67 GAA and .950 SV %.
Dwayne Roloson was acquired January 1st from the Islanders and went 18-12-4 for the Lightning in the regular season with a 2.56 GAA and .912 SV %. His numbers in the playoffs are even better, as he leads all playoff goalies in goals-against average (2.01) save percentage (.941) and is tied for wins (8). Rollie is 5-2 lifetime vs. Boston, though he has yet to face them this season. He last played Boston during the 2009-10 season as a member of the Islanders going 2-1 with a 2.21 GAA and .928 SV %.
The Bruins' power play has been brutal. They didn't score a power-play goal in their opening series and only finally ended the playoff drought during the last 90 seconds of their 10th game (Game 3 vs. Philadelphia). They are running at a 9.5% success rate (2 for 21). Meanwhile the Bolts have a 26.7% success rate in the playoffs. The penalty kill numbers favor Tampa again, as they have been excellent on the PK with a 94.4% success rate (3 goals allowed in 54 chances). Boston has a 80.5% success rate (8 goals allowed in 41 chances).
Edge: Tampa Bay
Prediction: Tampa Bay in 7.