In year’s past, this matchup had ‘Eastern Conference Finals’ written all over it. However, given the divisional bracket the NHL now employs, the top two teams in the East will square off in the second round as the Boston Bruins battle the Tampa Bay Lightning. Not that anyone will really complain once the puck drops on Saturday.
How Did They Get Here?
The Lightning finished the season with the best record in the East with 113 points. The Bruins finished just one point lower with 112 as they make a ferocious charge for the top spot late in the season. In fact, they held the top spot for several days in the finals weeks of the season. However, after their final game against the Lightning (a 4-0 loss in Tampa) the Bruins needed a win in the final game against the Panthers to leapfrog the Lightning. They lost which drew a first-round matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Lightning, on the other hand, went up against Taylor Hall and the New Jersey Devils.
The highly anticipated matchup nearly didn’t happen. The Lightning were able to eliminate the Devils in five games. However, the Bruins, after jumping out to a 3-1 series lead, needed seven games to eliminate the Toronto Maple Leafs. Nikita Kucherov led the Lightning in the first round with 10 points (five goals, five assists) with Steven Stamkos (six points) a close second. For the Bruins, the top line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand looked unstoppable at times. The trio collected 20 points through the first two games of the series but went a bit silent at times during the middle games. They returned in a huge way in the game-seven victory over the Leafs, collecting seven points between them.
The Bruins won the season series 3-1. Although, a late-season victory for the Lightning went a long way in securing the top overall seed. In addition, these two teams are no strangers when it comes to playoff matchups. In 2011, they met in the Eastern Conference Finals. That time around, the Bruins were the higher seed and had home ice advantage. However, it took seven games for the Bruins to close out the Lightning and punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Tuukka Rask vs. Andre Vasilevskiy
The two goaltenders will be center stage for this marquee matchup between the East’s best. Both netminders had strong regular seasons, although each also had a stretch where their play wasn’t so great. (Rask got off to a slow start and Vasilevskiy struggled down the stretch). Rask ended the year with a 34-14-5 record with .917 save percentage and a 2.36 goals against average for the Bruins. On the other side, Vasilevskiy notched a record of 44-17-3 with a .920 save percentage and a 2.62 goals against average.
In the playoffs, Vasilevskiy has been the better of the two, posting a .941 save percentage. Rask, at times, struggled against the Leafs Top 5 offense en route to a very unimpressive .899 save percentage. In the game five loss, Rask was chased in favor of Anton Khudobin after allowing four goals. In game seven, Rask wasn’t terrible. However, he wasn’t great either. Fortunately for him, the Bruins offense exploded for seven goals for the second time in the series. However, he did steal game four and has shown his ability to carry the Bruins. Despite what some segment of Bruins fans and media will tell you. However, it’s imperative that the Bruins get the really good Rask if they hope to make it past the lightning.
Bruins Top Line vs. Lightnings Top Defense
As previously mentioned, the Bruins top line of Bergeron, Pasternak, and Marchand torched the Leafs through the first couple games in Boston. The trio racked up 20 points in a pair of victories in Boston to start the series. Games 3-6 weren’t quite as impressive. However, it wasn’t for a lack of chances as Leafs’ netminder, Frederick Andersen stonewalled them for much of the middle part of the series. They ended the series with 29 points with Pastrnak leading the way with 13 points.
Now, they must go up against the likes of Norris Trophy finalist, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Mikhail Sergachev. No easy task. Hedman, McDonagh, and Anton Stralman led the Lignthing in time on ice during the first round. All of them averaged at least 22 minutes of ice time a game with Hedman leading the pack with an average of 26:24 minutes of ice time per game. Look for Hedman to spend most of his time on the ice against the Bruins top line. Especially at home when they have the benefit of the last change.
Lightning Offense vs Bruins Defense
Just as the Lightning will have their hands full with the Bruins top line, the same can be said for Boston against Tampa’s top line. After drawing the second best offensive team in the league in the first round, the Bruins now must go up against the BEST as Tampa led the league with 296 goals this year. They were led by two 30-goal scorers in Nikita Kucherov (39) and Brayden Point (32). Both of whom are under the age of 25. And, of course, they have this guy named Steven Stamkos. Stamkos notched 27 goals and 59 assists this season.
At age 41, Bruins captain Zdeno Chara still plays at a high level (mostly) and logs the most time of any player on the team. However, Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, and company will have to play more consistent to keep the Lightning offense at bay. The Bruins did a good job of eliminating Leafs’ star Auston Matthews in the first round but at times were sloppy with the puck. Especially in their own end. In addition, the Leafs exploited the Bruins defense with long stretch passes through the neutral zone. Kucherov’s speed and talent, combined with his indifference on defense, could pose problems for the Bruins as he could find himself with a number of one-on-one opportunities with Tuukka Rask. Something even the most ardent Rask defenders would admit isn’t ideal for a team looking to move on the conference finals.
Bruins – Rick Nash
The Bruins made several moves around the deadline to improve their chances. None were bigger than the acquisition of Nash, a former first overall pick. Nash was impressive in his first few weeks with the Bruins. Seemingly fitting in with no issues. However, an injury sidelined him for the last few weeks of the season until he returned for game one against the Leafs. He recorded just a goal and an assist in seven games and was a minus-4 against the Leafs. The numbers really do him a disservice as he wasn’t bad. He created a lot of offense and had plenty of opportunities. However, he has been unable to turn those chances into points (sound familiar Rangers fans?) and he will certainly have to do that against the Lightning. If he does, it could give the Bruins an offensive advantage.
Lightning – Chris Kunitz
By far the oldest member of this Lightning team, Kunitz, at this point in his career, is limited to fourth line minutes. However, Kunitz brings with him a bevy of playoff experience having won four Stanley Cups in his career. Prior to joining Tampa, Kunitz spent the last nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins where he won three of his four Cups. Two of which came in the last two seasons. Both the Bruins and Lightning offer a whole bunch of depth on offense so the advantage may come from forwards 10-12. Kunitz, who had 23 points in the playoffs in the last two seasons with Pittsburgh, could be the player that tilts the scales.
Just as it did back in 2011, this series will go seven games. Despite winning the season series, the Bruins and Lightning couldn’t be more evenly matched. Expect a close scoring (not necessarily low scoring) and physical battle between the two top teams in the East. Ultimately, the Bruins, who were greatly tested in the first round, will carry the momentum of game seven into this series. In addition, expect Rask to have a better overall series than he did against the Leafs.
Bruins in seven.
— Full Press NHL (@FPC_NHL) April 26, 2018