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NHL playoffs round 2: Early thoughts on Boston Bruins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

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It’s going to be a long and nasty series between these two division rivals.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Bruins defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 by a score of 7-4, and will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round starting this Saturday at 3:00 pm. With the first-round series finishing, we thought it would be good to take a quick look at Boston vs. Tampa Bay. This won’t be an advanced in-depth statistical dive (that will come tomorrow), this will primarily focus on what I saw from both teams in their first round series and what I feel are the main things we should focus on.

Initial Reaction

Sigh.

We all knew it was going to be Boston. It would’ve been nice to square off against Toronto, but they were always the underdog (especially after failing to show up for Game’s 1 and 2). Toronto did make it a series after remembering that they were a good hockey team, but their defensive shortcomings, offensive production, and inconsistent goaltending ultimately sank their first round hopes.

So, we are left with the Boston Bruins to face in the second round. We all know the history between these two teams, and I will again reiterate that the regular season series means nothing in the playoffs. Boston doesn’t care about that, neither does Tampa Bay.

The biggest question moving forward is how Tampa Bay will play in comparison to the first round. New Jersey was never in control of the series and the Lightning dispatched them in five games. However, the Devils were by no means an easy out. The score-sheet will show Tampa Bay won their four games by a combined score of 16-7 (and lost one game 5-2 with two empty-net goals), but New Jersey had stretches of play where they pushed the Lightning around—especially late in periods. Boston is far more deadly offensively than New Jersey, and if the Lightning play Boston in the same manner they did to New Jersey, then they are in for a rude awakening.

Raw Stats

Tampa Bay vs. Boston

Team GF GA GF/PG GA/PG PP% PK% Shots For/GP Shots Allowed/GP FOW%
Team GF GA GF/PG GA/PG PP% PK% Shots For/GP Shots Allowed/GP FOW%
Tampa Bay 18 12 3.6 2.4 26.30% 84.20% 33.6 34.2 52.40%
Boston 28 20 4 2.86 31.80% 73.30% 35 28.1 49.80%

Both the Lightning and the Bruins power-plays are hot at the moment, but Boston’s is clicking at an entirely different level (second best power-play of the remaining playoff teams). Conversely, the Bruins penalty kill has been putrid, so far. They are the worst penalty killing team still remaining in the playoffs, and the Maple Leafs power-play was only slightly better than Tampa Bay’s was in the first round (Toronto had a 26.7% success rate).

Tampa Bay on the other hand, has the fifth-best penalty kill of the remaining playoff teams (sixth overall, but Colorado has been eliminated). Boston is not this poor on the penalty kill, and I expect that unit to straighten out its issues, because, if that unit continues to struggle, then the Lightning are going to feast on them.

As for goals for and against, there isn’t too much out of the ordinary here. Boston averaging four goals per game is heavily weighted thanks to three blow out wins against a defensively suspect Toronto team. In games 1, 2, 4, and 7 (the games they won) they scored 22 goals; in games 3, 5, and 6 they scored 6 goals. Three of Boston’s wins were blowouts and only one victory was within two goals—game 4. The Bruins blasted the Leafs with an offensive explosion that few teams could’ve withstood.

Tampa Bay’s goal numbers are a little more consistent with their regular season (3.54 GF/2.8 GA during the season) and they won every game against the Devils by two or more goals. The Lightning power play is converting at a slightly higher percentage than their regular season average, but their penalty kill has completely flipped the script. The penalty kill was at 76.1% and suddenly improved to 84.2%—if Tampa Bay had that level of efficiency on the penalty kill during the season it would’ve ranked as the third best unit in the league. The real tale of Tampa Bay’s penalty kill is somewhere between these two numbers, there is no way this unit continues to kill penalties at this rate—especially with Boston coming to town.

Shot numbers? The only worrying thing here is that Tampa Bay is allowing the most shots out of any playoff team still alive, however, given that the Lightning were leading for the vast majority of their series against New Jersey, it is too early to say if this is indicative to anything other than score effects (more on this in the in-depth dive coming later this week).

Goaltending

Goaltending Matchup - Vasilevskiy vs. Rask

Goaltender Shots Against Saves Goals Allowed Sv% GAA
Goaltender Shots Against Saves Goals Allowed Sv% GAA
Vasilevskiy 169 159 10 0.941 2.01
Rask 188 169 19 0.899 2.94

Andrei Vasilevskiy played outstandingly for the Lightning during the first round. The worry that his workload would hurt him during the postseason were of no consequence against New Jersey. However, Boston is an entirely different animal with regard to offensive talent. Given Vasilevskiy’s strong play in the first round, we have to give the Russian netminder the benefit of the doubt, but Boston is going to test him, repeatedly.

Conversely, Tuukka Rask had an up-and-down series against Toronto. Early in the series he shut down the Maple Leafs, however, as the series progressed he began to struggle. Rask has always been known to be a bit erratic in his play, but he’s managed to bounce back in time to keep his team out of trouble. Still, if the Bruins get the same performance out of him against Tampa Bay as they did against Toronto, they are doomed to lose this series.

Matchups

We know what both teams are going to do—Jon Cooper will aim to shut down the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line while Bruce Cassidy will aim to shut down the Miller-Stamkos-Kucherov line. How will they go about it? Brayden Point’s line has been the de-facto shut down line for the Lightning all season and there is little to no doubt that Cooper will use that line to attack Boston’s top-line.

As for the Bruins, they might try to match top-line to top-line when they can, but do not count out the Krecji line stepping up and becoming a factor in this series. With Jake DeBrusk, Rick Nash, Danton Heinen, and David Backes all taking time on the second line it wouldn’t surprise me if Cassidy used them to try and lock down Tampa Bay’s top-line.

At forward, both of these teams are deep and skilled. All four lines from Boston and Tampa Bay don’t take a shift off, and will score if they’re taken lightly. In this regard, Boston is facing a similar task like they did against Toronto (though I believe Tampa Bay’s forward corps is more effective). Where it becomes more difficult for the Bruins is on the Lightning blue-line. Toronto does not have a number one defenseman to crunch minutes and be an anchor—or the depth on the blue-line.

Tampa Bay arguably has two in Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. Hedman is a perennial Norris Trophy candidate while Ryan McDonagh has been outstanding since coming to Tampa Bay. Additionally, the Lightning also have Anton Stralman, who is still playing great. The bottom three defensemen that the Lightning have are Dan Girardi, Braydon Coburn, and Mikhail Sergachev.

Tampa Bay has clearly managed the ice-time of Girardi, Coburn, and Sergachev in the playoffs. Girardi and Coburn are averaging 15 minutes per game while Sergachev is averaging 10 and a half minutes per game. The top three for Tampa Bay? Hedman - 26:24, Stralman - 22:53, McDonagh - 22:52. Hedman had a mix of Girardi, Corburn, and Stralman as his partners throughout the first round. The coaching staff is clearly riding their top defenders and mixing in the other three where they can.

To those of you fretting over Girardi as a “top-pairing defensemen”, read this. The coaching staff knows their bottom three have their deficiencies and are managing their minutes while having their best defender carry them (except Sergachev, he’s being heavily favored in the offensive zone and has not been paired with Hedman often). The main pairing that has handled the heavy minutes against top competition has been McDonagh-Stralman, and they’ve proven to be a very effective pairing.

Tampa Bay’s hope is that riding their top three defenders while managing their bottom three defenders will provide the same kind of consistent play we saw in the first round. Is it a guarantee it will work? No. Is this the most optimal way to handle the defensive corps moving forward? Yes. Andrej Sustr, Jake Dotchin, and Slater Koekkoek will not see ice-time unless one of the other defenders get hurt. That’s the reality of what the coaching staff is doing.

With Boston, they have Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, Matt Grzelcyk, and Adam McQuaid on the back-end. Chara was victimized, at times, by Toronto’s speed and that is something the Lightning should try to capitalize on. McAvoy struggled a little in the first round, but overall played rather well. Krug and Miller were good for the Bruins and their bottom pairing is solid with Grzelcyk and McQuaid. How Tampa Bay chooses to attack this defense remains to be seen, however, Boston did struggle with Toronto’s aggressive forecheck and speed. This is something the Lightning also excel at, and are probably more consistent at than the Maple Leafs.

Regardless, the match-up battle is going to be an interesting one as this series progresses. Jon Cooper has been smart with his player deployment in the playoffs, and there is little reason to doubt him now. This series is going to be a long one; so, strap in and be prepared for a lot of stress, emotional roller coasters, screaming, and obscenities.

Predictions

Lightning in 7. It’s going to be a stressful series, but I believe Tampa Bay has the horses to take down Boston. It sure as hell isn’t going to be easy, though.

Penguins in 6. Until proven otherwise, do not trust the Washington Capitals in the second round of the playoffs.

Jets in 7. I’m torn on this one. It’s similar to Boston vs. Tampa Bay; the two best teams in their conference going at it in the second round (ridiculous). I’m leaning towards Winnipeg, because I like blue more than yellow—yes, that makes no sense, but I seriously do not know who is going to come out of this bloodbath of a series.

Golden Knights in 6. Screw it, I’m tired of going against Vegas and having them throw egg on my face. First year expansion team to the conference final! (Seattle is so screwed, because you know the owners and GMs are gonna cry about the Golden Knights success and push the league to alter the rules to not set up Seattle the same way Vegas was.)