There will be plenty of hard hits dished out by Boston and Tampa Bay like this one
The first round saw the Boston Bruins eliminate arch-rival Montreal Canadiens in seven games. A series in which Boston lost Games 1 and 2 then stormed back to win four out of the next five games. Goaltender Tim Thomas and winger Nathan Horton led the way for the Bruins.
After dispatching Montreal, Boston faced off against the Philadelphia Flyers. Last season, the Flyers staged a historical come back in the second round of the playoffs, as they went from trailing the Bruins three games to none to win the series in seven games.
All of the talk going into this year's playoff series centered around that Flyers comeback. This season, in deja vu fashion, Boston, again, took a three games to none lead over Philadelphia but another comeback was not in the cards for the Flyers as the black and gold, led by center David Krejci, thoroughly dominated the team once known as the Broad Street Bullies and captured the fourth game by a score of 5-1, ending Philadelphia's plans of returning to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The series victory has put the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1991.
In this season's Eastern Conference Final, Boston will take on the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning made it to the third round by defeating Pittsburgh in seven games, a series in which Tampa Bay trailed the Penguins three games to one. Only to win the final three games.
In the second round, the Bolts overwhelmed the 1-seed Washington Capitals by sweeping a hard fought series. The Lightning scored 16 goals but allowed 11. This will be Tampa Bay's first trip back to the Eastern Conference Final since their Stanley Cup winning season of 2004.
During the regular season, Boston and Tampa Bay met four times with the Bruins winning three of the matches by a combined score of 15-8. All of the games were played before the Lightning acquired goaltender Dwayne Roloson who has played a major role in the Lightning's playoff success.
With each team just four wins away from the Stanley Cup Finals, here are five predictions to watch for in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals.
Tampa Bay's Dwayne Roloson leads the NHL in playoff goaltending statistics
There is no doubt both teams relied on solid, if not spectacular, goaltending to get to this point in the playoffs.
Tampa Bay's Dwayne Roloson has been outstanding. He was picked up by the Lightning on Jan. 1, 2011 and went on to post an 18-12-4 record with a goals against average of 2.56 and a save percentage of .912.
In the playoffs, all he has done is become one of the league leaders in wins by winning eight out of 11 games. He leads all NHL playoff goaltenders in goals against average which is 2.01 and in save percentage which is .941. He has also posted one shutout.
Roloson has playoff experience. He led the 2006 Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup Finals.
This observer is not surprised by the Simcoe, Ontario native's performance. I had the pleasure of watching Roloson develop into an elite puckstopper during his four years at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
In 1994, Roloson was a Hockey East First Team All-Star, Player of the Year and NCAA East First All American.
What can be said about Boston's Mr. Everything, Tim Thomas, that has not already been said?
After a shaky start in Games 1 and 2 against Montreal, Thomas has shown why he is the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina Trophy. With all due respect to his teammates, Thomas has been Boston's best player in these playoffs. His style may not be of the textbook variety but he is getting the job done and coming up with big saves when needed.
Going into the series against the Lightning, Thomas tied for the league lead in wins with eight and is second to Roloson in goals against average at 2.03 and save percentage which is .937.
As with Roloson, I watched Thomas mind the nets for the University of Vermont where he was an ECAC First Team All Star in 1995 and 1996. He was an NCAA Second Team All American in 1995. He was ECAC Goaltender of the Year and an NCAA First Team All American in 1996.
Either of these two goaltenders could win the Conn Smythe Award as the Most Valuable Player of the playoffs.
Teams build from the net out, and it is clear Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman and Boston's Peter Chiarelli have done exceptional jobs in that department.
Chris Kelly will fill in for Patrice Bergeron
Boston's second-line center, Patrice Bergeron was sidelined in the fourth game of the Eastern Conference semifinal against Philadelphia with a mild concussion. Third-line center, Chris Kelly will be moved into Bergeron's place while the club's leading playoff scorer recuperates.
While playing on the third line with Rich Peverley and Michael Ryder, Kelly has scored seven points in 11 playoff games. The 30-year-old center has scored four goals and three assists.
Those statistics will increase now that he is between Mark Recchi and Brad Marchand. Recchi is tied with Kelly with seven playoff points while Marchand is the second leading playoff scorer on the club with 11 points.
Kelly's deft passing skills will allow Recchi to continue to get scoring chances while Kelly's speed will give him and the equally speedy Marchand odd man rushes into the Tampa Bay zone which will result in opportunities to put the puck in the net.
Defensively, Kelly brings a plus/minus rating of plus-seven to the line. Bergeron also had a plus-seven before suffering the concussion.
Bringing Chris Kelly to Boston from Ottawa was one of general manager Peter Chiarelli's key moves. When the deal made, it was considered a minor move. By the end of this series, it could be considered a major move that was essential for Boston's success.
Look for Chris Kelly to be an impact player for Boston against Tampa Bay.
Goals may come easily to Teddy Purcell
Before the 2010-2011 season, Lightning forward Teddy Purcell had been in the National Hockey League for parts of four seasons with the Los Angeles Kings and Tampa Bay.
In those four years, he never scored more than 16 points. That changed this season. He was placed on the second line with captain Vincent Lecavalier and alternate captain Martin St. Louis which seemed to be just what Purcell needed to show the skills and talent he exhibited during his one season at the University of Maine, where he scored 43 points in 40 games.
While skating on the right side with Lecavalier and St. Louis this season, Purcell scored 17 goals and 34 assists totaling 51 points.
In this season's playoffs, Purcell has accrued 11 points on one goal and 10 assists. In the four-game sweep over the Washington Capitals, the 25-year-old native of St. John's, Newfoundland put up six assists.
Teddy Purcell is clearly on the line with Levcavalier and St. Louis with the purpose to set up the high scoring superstars, however, it is only a matter of time before Purcell begins to score goals in bunches. That time may come in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston.
Zdeno Chara's 105 mph slap shot could be the difference maker against Tampa Bay
The Boston Bruins are extremely happy that their power play finally found the back of the net against Philadelphia.
It was a pitiful 0-for-9, that is 0-for-9 playoff games until captain Zdeno Chara scored at 18:38 of the third period of Game 3 in the team's Eastern Conference Semifinal series. Winger Milan Lucic added the club's second power-play goal in Game 4.
While the club and all of New England breathed a sigh of relief, the fact is, Boston's power play is at a woeful 5.4 percent success rate or to put more plainly, 2-for-37, in the playoffs. Sputtering along at that clip will not put the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Obviously, of the five teams remaining in the playoffs, at the time of this writing, Boston is dead last in this category. Chara is expected to be the catalyst of the power play. As mentioned, he has one power-play goal. He will need to get more shots on goal if he is to lead the black and gold past the Lightning.
The penalty killing units have been more efficient for Boston. The PK is ranked third in the NHL with an 80.5 percent success rate. They have not scored a short-handed goal in 11 playoff games.
Patrice Bergeron will be missed but this is where others will need to shine in his place. The adage in hockey is that, "Your goaltender needs to be your best penalty killer." Tim Thomas certainly has been the best penalty killer for the Bruins up to this point, and he will need to continue to be against Tampa Bay's high octane offense.
Unlike Boston's power play, Tampa Bay's is cruising along in these playoffs. Operating at a success rate of 26.7 percent. It is the number one power play in the playoffs. These units have gone 12-for-45 with Martin St. Louis leading the way with three man advantage goals while defenseman Pavel Kubina, center Steven Stamkos and captain Vincent Lecavalier have scored two each.
The Lightning offense is potent, and all of their power play players are to be respected.
Tampa Bay has enjoyed success on the penalty kill, as well. Their four man units have gone 51-for-54, which translates to 94.4 percent and are ranked first in this statistical category also. They have scored one short-handed goal along the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Special teams always play big roles in hockey games and they are more significant in the playoffs. Zdeno Chara will need to score a few more power play goals and be a shut down defenseman on the penalty kill in order for Boston's special teams to have success in this series.
Martin St. Louis will need to battle through Chara in order to score on the Lightning power play consistently.
Special teams will play a significant role in the series.
Tim Thomas will lead Boston to the Stanley Cup Finals
Many "experts" are predicting Tampa Bay will win this series and proceed to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Statistically, the Lightning hold an advantage. The advantage is not a big one and each player and coach will tell you that with each new series, they "throw the numbers out the window."
There are many factors that will contribute to a team's play. Some can be measured such as goaltending, players playing beyond expectations and special teams successes. Other factors cannot be measured such as the will to win and the desire to be a champion.
Each team in this series will see players such as Chris Kelly and Teddy Purcell play above what was thought to be their capabilities.
The series will test the wills of the members of the power play and penalty killing units of each club.
Ultimately, it will come down to goaltending.
Can Tampa Bay's Dwayne Roloson stop the blasts from Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara? Can Boston's Vezina Trophy candidate, Tim Thomas stop former University of Vermont teammate and Most Valuable Player candidate, Martin St. Louis off the rush and/or from in close?
This Eastern Conference Final has the potential to be one of the best playoff series of all time.
The prediction here says, Bruins netminder Thomas will out-duel Roloson in seven games and take Boston to the Stanley Cup Finals.