The Eastern Conference Finals faces two teams—one who anticipated being here, and one who didn't—in a rather unusual and intriguing matchup for the Prince of Wales trophy.
The Tampa Bay Lightning—highlighted by a stacked top line and unexpectedly heroic goaltender—and the Boston Bruins—topped off by towering defenseman Zdeno Chara and veteran netminder Tim Thomas—will meet for the Eastern Conference title.
The series will begin this Saturday in Boston's TD Banknorth Garden for Game 1. However, with this being a somewhat untraditional matchup, a lot of questions remain on how the series will play out. Both teams were taken to Game 7 before they each eliminated a tough opponent in Round 1, but both teams also swept their Round 2 series to get here.
How will the two teams face off against each other? There's a lot of uncertainty surrounding that.
We'll take a look at six key questions that could make the difference for the Bolts and Bruins in this series, and also examine how the two teams match up based on what we've already seen.
Despite all of the similarities between these two teams, the goaltending duel that we're all about to experience will likely be the deciding factor in the series.
Boston's Tim Thomas, 37, and Tampa Bay's Dwayne Roloson, 41, combined for a 53-13-13 record with their respective teams during the regular season. As an added bonus, Thomas set the all-time NHL record for save percentage at .938, and finished with a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.00.
During the playoffs, Thomas and Roloson are first and second in almost every category. Roloson is first in save percentage at .941; Thomas is second at .937. Roloson is first in total saves with 366; Thomas is second with 354. Roloson is first in GAA at 2.01; Thomas is second at 2.03. Both goalies have 8-3 records—no other goaltenders are better.
The two veterans will bring a lot of experience and talent to the table each and every night. Going through the game-saving stops over the course of the first two rounds made by the duo of goaltenders would take an entirely new slideshow. Who will come out victorious? We'll just have to wait and see.
One of the Bolts' keys to success this postseason has been depth scoring. Beyond their impressive first line, a boatload of other forwards—buried under the hype from Stamkos, St. Louis, and Lecavalier during the regular season—have chipped in a great deal.
Sean Bergenheim is tied for the league lead in playoff goals with seven. The two players he's tied with—Danny Briere and Joel Ward—are both already eliminated. What makes this more amazing is Bergenheim's career high regular season point total of 29, which he set this year.
Steve Downie and Teddy Purcell—two more unlikely stars—each have 10 assists and combine for a plus-12 rating. Dominic Moore has finally found his niche in Tampa and has 10 points and a plus-five rating. Several more aging forwards, such as Simon Gagne (two goals, seven points) and Ryan Malone (three goals, five points), have also made an impact.
Nevertheless, it'll be quite tough for these depth forwards to keep this up against Boston's rock-solid defense.
The unit is tied for first in goals allowed per game during the playoffs at 2.18 (interestingly enough, they're tied with Tampa Bay in this category) and finished second out of all 30 teams during the regular season at 2.30 average goals allowed per game.
Even with much-hyped trade deadline acquisition Tomas Kaberle not quite working out so far (he's still a plus-five, though), brick wall Zdeno Chara can take care of things on his own. Still, he'll have an extremely balanced and deep defensive core to work with, including solid options like Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference and reliable fill-in players like Adam McQuaid and Shane Hnidy.
No player on the seven-man crew is in the negatives in plus/minus during the regular season; in fact, they combine for a plus-38 rating. The unit is sixth in hits and fifth in blocked shots during the postseason.
Though it may not get as much press attention as some of the other duels, the Bolts' offensive depth versus the Bruins' defensive depth is a big turning point in the series.
Boston had the clear edge over Tampa Bay during the season series. After the Lightning won the first meeting 3-1 back on November 22, Boston swept the final three games by a combined score of 14-5, including an 8-1 pounding on December 2 in the Garden.
The Bruins' top players had their way against the Bolts. The first line highlighted Boston's edge, as David Krejci had two goals, two assists and a plus-three rating, Milan Lucic had two goals, one assist and a plus-four rating, and Nathan Horton had three assists and a plus-four rating. Other big contributors like Mark Recchi (two goals, two assists, one game winner) and Michael Ryder (three goals, two assists, plus-three) played major roles. Tim Thomas was 3-0 in his meetings with the Lighting with a .950 save percentage and 1.67 GAA.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's threatening first trio was held relatively in check, as Stamkos had two goals, one assist and a minus-one rating, St. Louis had one goal, one assist and a minus-one rating, and Lecavalier, who played in only one game of the season series, had just one point.
Other typically reliable Bolts were burned repetitively by Boston; Victor Hedman was a minus-three, Simon Gagne was a minus-five, and Dominic Moore was a brutal minus-six. In terms of goaltending, Mike Smith was 1-2 with a .896 save percentage and 3.00 GAA, while Dan Ellis was 0-1 with a .821 save percentage and horrific 5.38 GAA. It is worth noting that Roloson did not play for Tampa Bay in any game against Boston.
There's obviously no doubt that Boston has the advantage in previous success against this upstart Tampa Bay team heading into the series. Can they keep it up?
Though we've already discussed the strength of Boston's defense, it's surprising to see that Tampa Bay has actually been the more physical, aggressive team during the Conference Quarterfinals and Semi-Finals. The Lightning, ranked fifth in this regard, are one spot higher, have eight more total hits (290 to 282) during the playoffs and are first overall—four spots higher than the Bruins—in shot blocking (233 to 169) during the postseason.
The Bolts have a mostly quiet and underrated defense to work with. Recent signings over the past year by new GM Steve Yzerman—which brought players such as Pavel Kubina, Mattias Ohlund, and Eric Brewer to Tampa's 'D'—have given the Lightning a solid defense, for once, to secure the back end.
Keeping an edge in physical play could be a surprising boost to the Bolts as they hope to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Now, it's all a matter of if they're going to be able to keep that advantage.
The Bruins' power play—which was a concern during most of the past regular season and ended up finishing 20th in the NHL—has gone from bad to worse during the playoffs.
It hasn't cost them yet, but Boston's man advantage has scored only two times on 37 opportunities during the first two rounds—a mere 5.4 percent conversion rate—ranking them third-to-last among the 16 teams who qualified for the playoffs.
On the other hand, Tampa Bay's penalty kill—which was eighth during the regular season at 83.7 percent—has gone from good to great during their postseason run. Down a man, the Lightning have killed off 51 of 54 power play opportunities against, putting them in second among all playoff teams at 94.4 percent, trailing only now-eliminated Montreal's perfect PK mark (that came against the Bruins, nonetheless).
This seemingly one-sided matchup could be a huge turning point in the direction of this series. An improved power play could give Boston yet another weapon to use, but continued struggles could finally start costing the Bruins some wins.
It might not be at the forefront, but the tale of these two opposite yet successful coaches who will spend the series standing not too far apart may be an underlying tale of the matchup.
Boston's Claude Julien, age 51, has taken the Bruins to the playoffs four straight times since his hiring before the '07-'08 season, but has fallen in the first two rounds all three previous times until this year.
Conversely, Tampa Bay's Guy Boucher—only 39 and in his first ever season coaching at the NHL level—has proven to be a valuable hire by Yzerman so far. He took the Bolts to a 46-25-11 record this season, their first playoff berth in four years (not since '06-'07), and their first playoff series victory since their Cup-winning run of '03-'04.
With two quality coaches working the matchups and strategies for both sides, watch for Boucher and Julien to both make an impact on this year's Eastern Conference Finals.