2011 NHL Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Bruins vs. Lightning

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2011 NHL Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Bruins vs. Lightning
former U of Vermont teammates and good friends Marty St. Louis & Tim Thomas battle it out in the Eastern Conference Finals

As the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs get underway tomorrow evening in Boston, there is plenty of speculation as to which team will come out victorious. Will it be the defensive powerhouse Boston Bruins led by goalie Tim Thomas and defenseman Zdeno Chara or will it be the high-flying Tampa Bay Lightning and their young star Steven Stamkos accompanied by MVP candidate Martin St. Louis? It’s going to be a tough series to predict, but a very entertaining one for the fans.

There are five factors in the series that will decide which way it goes. These factors include goaltending, defense, forwards, physicality and special teams.

Goaltending

In the goaltending department we have two veterans of the game.

In the Tampa Bay Lightning’s crease is the oldest goalie in the NHL this year, Dwayne Roloson. Roloson has had a stellar playoffs and is one of the big reasons why the Lightning have made it this far.

Roloson has plenty of experience in pressure hockey, as he previously led the Edmonton Oilers to the Cup Final in 2006. Roloson is number one in three of the four main goalie statistics in these 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, posting up a .941 save percentage, a GAA of 2.01, 8 wins and is second in shutouts with 1.

How Many Games Will it Take?

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The only problem for the Lightning in this department is that they haven’t played a Vezina-caliber goaltender in the playoffs to date. Say what you will about Marc-Andre Fleury, but he isn’t the same goalie he was when the Pens won the cup, and Washington’s goaltending carousal of rookies got taken advantage of by the Bolts.

Now they are about to face potential 2011 Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas. Thomas has had some issues these playoffs, but he will assure you he has found his game. Early on in the playoffs Thomas struggled with his rebound control and confidence, but once he settled his nerves he returned to his Vezina form.

After posting up NHL records in the regular season, Thomas has a .937 save percentage, 2.03 GAA, and 8 victories these playoffs. The stats basically cancel themselves out in this case, but Thomas has been the most consistent between the two and it just simply better.

Advantage: Boston Bruins

Defense

Both Boston and Tampa Bay have good defensive lineups, but Boston has much more depth.

Boston’s top two d-men, Chara and Seidenberg, are +11 and +8 respectively, and have another two defenseman in the Top 10 in +/- in the 2011 playoffs among defenseman compared to the Lightning’s one (Mattias Ohlund +6).

Elsa/Getty Images

Comparisons can be drawn to the strengths of Mattias Ohlund and Dennis Seidenberg, or Brewer versus Chara, but they end after that.

The Bruins have Tomas Kaberle, who can be a difference maker in the series if he plays like he is expected to. Overall, the Bruins depth at defense should prove helpful in shutting down the forward depth of the Lightning.

Advantage: Boston Bruins

Forwards

With the loss of Marc Savard to more concussion problems earlier in the season, and now the loss of Patrice Bergeron for at least two games of the series, the Boston Bruins are struggling to find offense from their forwards.

Lack of offense? Not a problem for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their MVP of the playoffs may well be third line winger Sean Bergenheim, a virtual no name before the playoffs began.

Although the Bruins are virtually tied with the Lightning for goals for in the playoffs with 37 (to Tampa’s 38), they have been struggling to get any offense in special teams situations. Tampa Bay has multiple threats in their lineup to score, whether it is Stamkos, Downie, Gagne, Lecavlier, St. Louis or Bergeneheim; the Bruins are very limited to their top line of Lucic, Krejci and Horton.

With Chris Kelly moving up a line to center the second line of Marchand and Recchi, the offensive dynamic changes and it could be for the worse.

Who Will Win?

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Overall, the strong forward presence of the Lightning will have to be at its best when it faces the Bruins defense if it wants to be successful.

Advantage: Tampa Bay Lightning

Physical Play

Both the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning can play some hard-hitting hockey.

Tampa hits to get their opponent off the puck and create more room for its highly talented forwards, meanwhile Boston hits to intimidate.

The Bruins defenseman and all four forward lines have players who can make games change with just one hit. The Bruins strike fear with their physicality. If the Bruins are able to come out hard in game one hitting, but being responsible in the process, they will be successful in the playoffs.

But if they are irresponsible it will be their Achilles' heel.

Advantage: Boston Bruins

Special Teams

The most important factor in this series is that of special teams.

On one side, the Lightning have been virtually unstoppable on the power play, scoring 26.7% of the time. Meanwhile the Bruins did not score their first power play goal until the second-round and have just two goals with the man advantage for a dismal 5.4% success rate.

On the other side of the power play, on the penalty kill Tampa is 94.4%, much better than Boston’s 80.5% penalty kill. It is pretty clear where the advantage lies here if the Bruin’s cannot get their power play going in this series.

Advantage: Tampa Bay Lightning

Summary

Overall, this series is built to be a classic and expect a long series at that. Both sides have strong, well-executed systems, and it is going to be quite the clash in styles.

If Boston is able to stay out of the penalty box and make the Lightning play five on five, the Bruins will come away with the series.

If they don’t, and they cannot penetrate the neutral zone, the Lightning forwards will take advantage of turnovers, and they make the opposition pay.

Overall, Boston is the better team, and the Lightning haven’t faced a defensively sound team all playoffs long. They will struggle to power through the checkers and defense of the Bruins, let alone beat Tim Thomas.

This is probably the toughest series to predict in the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs thus far, but look for the Bruins to pull off the win.

 Prediction: Boston Bruins 4-3


Catch Game 1 on CBC/RDS in Canada Versus at 8 EST/5 PST Saturday May 14th, 2011

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