Two teams enter the NHL Eastern Conference Finals as the hottest in the league. They both were extended to seven games in the first round, rallying from two-game deficits in the series and survived on the brink of elimination. Both swept their higher seeded second round opponent.
Each had 103 points and 46 wins on the season. Both have extremely veteran goaltenders defying their age and backstopping their teams to a shot at a championship.
Tampa Bay was won seven straight. Boston seven of eight. Tampa Bay is the top scoring team in the playoffs with 38 goals in 11 games. Boston is right on their tail in 3rd with 37 goals in 11 contests. They're both tied for the best GAA at 2.18.
Both have key players trying to recover from concussion-like symptoms (Simon Gagne for Tampa Bay, Patrice Bergeron for Boston).
Each team has four players in double figures in points in the playoffs. While the Lightning may have a bit more star power, each has balanced scoring throughout their line ups.
The Lightning and Bruins are so closely matched up that it's difficult to really see a difference between these two ultra-talented, determined hockey clubs.
After falling behind early in their respective first round series, each showed the desire, belief, and determination to rally from behind and win the series.
They both showed skill in routing their favored opponents in the second round, sweeping them right out of the postseason.
So how to you analyze a matchup between two teams that so closely resemble each other it's simply uncanny?
Regular Season Series: 3-1 Boston
During the regular season, Boston didn't have any truly dynamic scorers. Milan Lucic led the way with 30 goals on the season and their top point producers managed just 62 points (Krejic and Lucic). The Bruins certainly had balance with 12 players in double figures in goals. They had eight players with at least 40 points.
The trend continued in the postseason with four players in double figures in points and at least four goals. Surprisingly though, Lucic isn't one of them, managing just two goals and five points in 11 games.
Tampa Bay boasts top scorers Steven Stamkos (45 goals, 91 points) and Martin St. Louis (31 goals and 99 points) as well as some scoring depth. The Lightning had 10 players in double figures in goals and five players with at least 40 points.
The playoffs have been a bit more balanced for Tampa Bay. The Legend of Sean Bergenheim shockingly leads all Lightning goal scores with seven goals in 11 playoff games. Bergenheim scored 14 during the regular season.
Stamkos had only six points (four goals) in the 11 games, but both Martin St. Louis and captain Vincent Lecavalier contributed in double figures point totals for the Lightning. Like the Bruins, Tampa Bay has four players in double figures in points and four with at least four goals.
The depth of the Bruins evens out the star power of the Lightning.
Defense and Goaltending
Coming into the post season, Tampa Bay's turnaround on defense has been nothing short of remarkable. After spending much of the 2010-11 regular season at the bottom of the league standings in goals against, Tampa Bay finds itself at the top with the Bruins during the playoffs.
Much of the new found success can be attributed to the arrival of Dwayne Roloson and Eric Brewer, which has stabilized the Tampa Bay blue line. Tampa Bay has held opponents to two or less goals in six of their 11 games in the postseason.
Roloson has been unbelievable for the Lightning in the postseason, posting a 2.01 GAA while making a playoff leading 366 saves. Roloson has also posted a league best .941 save percentage (among players with at least 4 appearances in the playoffs).
Any discussion of the Bruins defense must begin with the mountain of a man, Zdeno Chara. Chara has turned in another Norris Trophy worthy season and is a threat on both ends of the ice. Boston's defense is big and nasty, much in the same vain as the Pittsburgh Penguins threw at Tampa Bay in round one.
In the matchup with Pittsburgh, the smaller Tampa Bay team struggled with keeping the puck in the offensive zone, this could again be a problem for the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals.
If the Lightning find a way to get past Chara and his defensive mates, there's still Tim Thomas to deal with. Like the Lightning's Roloson, the veteran Boston net-minder is again a finalist for the Vezina after putting together an amazing season. It has continued in the playoffs for Thomas, who has a 2.03 GAA with a .937 save percentage.
Thomas and Chara make getting goals a premium against the Bruins.
While most of the tale of the tape is just about even when it comes to the Lightning and Bruins, this area is certainly one that tips the scales Tampa Bay's way.
After finishing sixth in the NHL on the man advantage during the regular season, Tampa Bay leads all teams still remaining in the playoffs with an outstanding 26.7 percent on the powerplay (12 of 45). The Bolts also are tops among teams still alive in the playoffs with an unconscious 94.4 percent penalty kill (51 of 54).
That's not good news for Boston, who struggle with both the power play (5.4 percent, 2 of 37) and the penalty kill (80.5 percent, 8 of 41).
Advantage: Tampa Bay
Its not even close here. The special teams is a clear advantage for the Lightning.
The Bruins will win if...
Their experience in the playoffs gives them an even demeanor and the Lightning get caught up in the moment. Boston stays strong defensively, defends home ice and improves on their special teams.
The Lightning will win if....
They handle the pressure of the Eastern Conference Finals, overcome their house of horrors - the TD Garden Center (The Lightning have played 35 games all time in Boston and have won four - they are 0-2 this season including an 8-1 blowout loss), continue to excel on special teams.
My own prediction will come in the next installment–2011 NHL Playoffs Predictions: Lightning vs. Bruins, Who’ll Win and Why?