I am an unapologetic Tampa Bay Lightning homer.
There's no point in rationalizing it or concealing that fact.
As one of the few natives in Tampa, I learned hockey from watching the Lightning's birth. I still remember going to the Expo Hall on the Florida State Fairgrounds when Chris Kontos initiated my love affair with a game of guys in ice skates hitting a rubber thing with crooked sticks by scoring four goals in the Lightning's first-ever game.
My greatest sports memory isn't the Buccaneers winning the Super Bowl,—although let me tell you, it's right up there—it's being there during Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals and watching Dave Andreychuck finally lift the Cup.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not drinking the Lightning Kool-Aid all the time.
When the three-ring circus of Oren Koules and Len Barrie traded away Brad Richards, destroyed the confidence of Vincent Lecavalier, fired John Tortorella and basically annihilated the fan base, my pen (or keyboard, as it were) was a sword, and my words were the blade.
Yet more often than not, I see the good in all things Tampa Bay.
Even with all that said though, I want to think of myself as a sports journalist (even if only as a blogger). To be that, I need to at least attempt to be somewhat objective.
Who wins the Eastern Conference Finals?
Putting the heart aside, I wrestled with the prediction as to who would win the 2011 Eastern Conference finals.
Boston has the experience, but the Lightning have faced death three times and survived. The Bruins have a superb defense, but the Lightning dominate on special teams. Both teams come in playing at the top of their games. There's the thought that the Lightning can't win in Boston; it's valid, because frankly, they've only done it four times in 35 tries.
Still, as we all know, the playoffs are such a different animal. What happens during the regular season doesn't apply.
If you have top-notch scoring talent and a goalie playing lights out like the Lightning have, they're extremely difficult to beat. Boston can boast the same thing though.
I believe in my heart that the Lightning can win this series. Their dominance on special teams will make a distinct difference, and Tampa Bay will have its chance to win games on their power play and penalty kill.
My pick isn't the Lightning though. I'm going with Boston.
I think when you get to this point, home-ice advantage becomes paramount. Add in the Lightning's troubles in TD Garden, and it makes it elementary.
I don't believe Tampa Bay will go down without a fight though. I see this series going long,—seven games long—and I think Tampa Bay will get at least one win in Boston, but manage to lose one at home. There will be some glorious fights, some amazing scoring plays and some DOH! moments that will have the nation talking.
The Bolts have the hearts of lions, and they will give everything they have to win the Prince of Wales Trophy awarded to the Eastern Conference champions.
But in the end, I think the Lightning just aren't quite ready for the big stage. Boston has too much talent on defense, their goaltender is too solid and their experience will win out when the bright lights burn on the Bolts as the series gets deeper, the battles get tougher and scoring becomes scarce.
Dwayne Roloson has been terrific for the Lightning. You have to admire the work the 41-year-old net-minder has put into this, perhaps his final playoff run. But Tim Thomas is a Vezina Trophy candidate for a reason. As great as Rollie has been, Thomas is the better goalie.
In the end, that may be the bottom line difference.
As JC De La Torre the fan, I hope (I pray) I'm wrong.
As the journalist/blogger/whatever, I believe I'm right.
PREDICTION: Boston in seven.