The 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs are down to the final four teams. Gone are the wannabes, the pretenders and the teams who thought this was their year. Two teams in each conference are left standing, and whether they were expected to be there or not, they proved to be the best in the real season.
And so we're left with the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference, while in the East, the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning will face off.
It all starts Saturday night in Boston.
The most surprising team of the four is clearly the Lightning, who came into the season with question marks all throughout their lineup, but the club came together late in the year, and with the help of stellar goaltending, and out-of-this-world play by their leader, Martin St. Louis, they've launched themselves back into Cup contention.
And hey, don't forget that of the four, they were the last to win the Cup, back in 2004.
So, before the puck drops and the action gets underway yet again, here are 15 bold predictions regarding the Lightning and the Bruins, including who will be representing the East in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011.
15. Recchi's Time To Shine
Mark Recchi has had a steady first two rounds of the playoffs this season—two goals and seven points through 11 games—but as the most experienced player on the ice for either team, he's due to show just how valuable that can be in the postseason.
Recchi's played 158 career playoff games, scoring 58 goals and 140 points in that time, and with the absence of Patrice Bergeron for the first two games of the series, they'll need someone else to step up. The 43-year-old still has plenty left in the tank, and will show that this old man can still hang with the kids.
14. Bruins Power Play Comes Out of Hibernation
Boston's power play has been atrocious thus far in the postseason. Two goals in 37 attempts—a whopping 5.4 percent—means they've generally been at a disadvantage when up a man. Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice, Tampa is rolling with a league-leading 94.4 percent penalty kill through two rounds. All signs point to the Bruins once again being useless with an opponent in the box.
But we're being bold here, and if the boys in yellow and black plan on hanging with the top dogs on the Lightning, they're going to have to score. Not an easy task against Dwayne Roloson, but their season might rest on it.
They were nothing special in the regular season either with the man advantage (just 16.2 percent, good for 20th in the NHL), but the best teams are at their best in the postseason.
13. Brewer Better
Defense will be huge in this series—and I mean that in every possible way. Zdeno Chara leads all Bruins in ice time with 28:41 through two rounds. Eric Brewer leads all Lightning players with 26:09. Each will be leaned upon heavily, and even though Chara has been an absolute force thus far, Brewer will be better.
Chara will be stuck against a small, speedy St. Louis, and the rocket shot of Steven Stamkos. Each could prove to be tricky for the 6'9" behemoth to hang with for an entire series. It could be like a bear trying to catch a water bug—if the bear catches it with a well-timed swat, it's over, but then again, that's a big if.
Meanwhile, Brewer—who has rejuvenated his career in Tampa this season—will essentially be forced to battle in front of the net against Boston's tough forwards. Fine by him; that largely plays into his game, and he should have an easier time playing the game he wants to rather than Chara, who could be forced to chase players more than he wants to.
12. Patrice Not Berger-gone for Long
Pardon the lame title, but it doesn't take a rocket surgeon to realize that everything is on the line in this series. Thus, Patrice Bergeron will make an appearance, and go on to make a difference.
Though he's prone to concussions—having just suffered the third of his career—and it might be the wise choice to shut him down, that probably won't happen. Bergeron is an underrated warrior in this league, and if he's able to get back on the ice around Game 4, he could be just in time to push his club over the top. Bergeron leads all Bruins with 12 points.
11. Tyler Seguin
Um, not a difference maker. Not yet, anyway.
10. Not Downie with Steve
Steve Downie could very well be the X-factor in this series, as it sets up perfectly for him to drive the Bruins absolutely nuts. His game isn't pretty, but neither is the game of the team across from him, and that could fall right into his hands.
If Downie can rile up the Bruins even the slightest bit—who've been known to lose their temper once or twice this year—it could open up space for the skill guys on the team to fire away. Or, it could backfire big time, and fall into the hands of the big, bad Bruins, who tend to win the physical battles.
9. Bergenheim's Tall Task
Sean Bergenheim leads the Lightning with seven goals this postseason, which is a pleasant surprise to the club, and a big reason why they've had so much success against teams who were thought to be better than them. But if he's the best player on the team against the Bruins, well, that might not be the recipe for success.
There's a good chance he won't keep up his torrid scoring pace, which doesn't necessarily hurt the team—it just means the guys who are supposed to be leading the team in scoring start doing so.
8. Road Warriors
The Bruins have been fantastic on the road, losing just once in the five games away from home (a 2-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6 of the first round).
The Lightning have been ever better, going 5-1 on the road (their only road loss being Game 1 of the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins).
The series will come down to who performs better away from home, but look for the Bruins to have the upper hand on getting the job done, seeing as TD Banknorth Garden is going to absolutely rocking in favour of the B's—and those fans are always ruthless—which will make it tough for the Lightning to have a lot of success in Boston.
7. Vinny, Say It Isn't So
Classy guy, fantastic player, but his rebirth this postseason isn't going to continue much in Round 3.
Hate to say it, but if the Lightning are going to win, it's going to be because of someone else.
6. Kaberle, Just in Time
He hasn't been the player they traded for earlier in the season—not even close—but if there was ever a time for Tomas Kaberle to stand up and prove his worth, it's right now. He's got to show up on not only the power play, but at even strength too. The Bruins need him against the speedy Lightning to add some depth in scoring from the back end.
Kaberle will, as usual, do just enough in this series to earn praise, but you can bet it'll be a lot better than what he's done since he arrived in Boston a few months ago. And Bruins fans, well, I'm sure they'll ridicule him less for it.
But only less.
5. Stamkos Returns
He's been taking some flak for his lack of domination in the goal-scoring department over the past few months and into the playoffs, but it's hard to think he doesn't have a few vintage—if we can call it that yet—Stamkos one-timers from his favourite spot on the ice.
Both Stamkos and St. Louis need to be huge in this series—they just need to be—and though he won't be the difference maker, he'll show up more than he has in the past two rounds.
4. Welcome to the Party, Milan
He hasn't been at his best during the first two rounds of these playoffs—just two goals and five points through 11 games—but Milan Lucic is too good to stay quiet for much longer. This series just screams success for the beastly forward who scored 30 goals this season.
If the Lightning are without Pavel Kubina for much longer, and Lucic can get some time against their second pairing, he could prove to be too much to handle, just like he was all season. Although, you can bet Eric Brewer might have something to say about that if he's roaming the ice.
Expect Lucic to come out flying, and not stop until the job is done.
3. St. Louis, Still
It doesn't matter where it is, when it is or how much is against him, Marty St. Louis always gets the job done. This series will be no different. Win or lose, St. Louis will once again be a force to be reckoned with throughout, while proving heart goes a long way in this league.
But, I guess that wasn't a very bold prediction, was it? Sue me.
2. Roloson Cracks First
Dwayne Roloson leads all playoff goalies with a ridiculous .941 save percentage and 2.01 GAA. He is the reason the team is where it is right now. But asking him to lead them through another series that is destined to be twice as tough as their last matchup proved to be, well, that may turn out to be too much for a 41-year-old to do.
Sure, expect him to still be great, but he's facing a Bruins team that's going to get in his face, rough him up and get him angry. And in case you haven't noticed in Roloson's career, getting him angry isn't tough. It's what he does when he's angry that could make or break how he plays.
Tim Thomas has been playing great in the playoffs too—a not-too-shabby .937 save percentage and a 2.03 GAA proves that—but it's been a continuation of what he's done since day one of the season. Would it really be a shock if Roloson's magic ran out? Probably not.
In the end, Thomas will prove to be the better goalie in the series.
1. Bruins in Seven
It might not have the flavour and flare that some other matchups would have provided, but this is going to be one tightly fought battle right to the end, and a lot better than people are expecting.
The Bruins size vs. the Lightning skill is what it's built up to be, but in the end, it comes down to who's in the net. Roloson has played mind-boggling between the pipes, but Tim Thomas has done the same, over the entire season.
It wouldn't be a shock if the 41-year-old, who has been playing great for two months, was beaten by the 37-year-old, who has been playing great for eight.
The series will go the distance, but in the end the Bruins will prevail on home ice in Game 7, and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1990.