The Tampa Bay Lightning start their second round playoff series against the Boston Bruins on Saturday at 3 PM. The two teams enter the series following diametrically opposite first round experiences. The Lightning took care of the New Jersey Devils comfortably in five games and will have been off for a full week by the time game one against the Bruins starts. Meanwhile, Boston slogged through seven games against Toronto and will have only two rest days between closing out the Leafs and facing the Lightning.
Analyzing the first round series for the Lightning was easy. They were better than the Devils and if they played well, they’d win the series. This series is more complicated. The separation between these teams is less clear and the conclusions we draw will be muddier. Nothing that follows will be satisfying. But we will plunge forward undaunted and search for the forest amidst the trees.
First, we look to the nerds for guidance. Micah Blake McCurdy has the Lightning a 57% favorite. Emmanuel Perry has the Lightning a 54% favorite. And Dom Luszczyszyn has the Lightning at 51%. My mental model after smushing together all the available information aligns more closely with Dom’s and I’ll explain why as we go through the numbers.
To start, we’ll look at a team comparison chart using a series of key statistics. This chart shows only regular season numbers. The bars represent the full season and the dots represent the last ten games. All data is via Corsica.Hockey.
The Bruins and Lightning share a similar statistical profile with a couple of important differences. At 5v5, both teams post strong shot shares and expected goal shares. They even get to those numbers in similar ways. Both excel defensively while being more middle of the road offensively.
Their offensive similarities go even further. Each team does a good job of generating shots but are below average at generating dangerous shots. Defensively, they finally show some differences. The Lightning limit the amount of expected goals against by not allowing dangerous shots while the Bruins do so by suppressing the overall number of shots.
Where we see a huge gap is in the results section. The Lightning score way more goals than expected and that is probably due to both shooting talent and luck. The Bruins are about league average in that area.
On special teams, we see a similar story with both teams having decent power plays and strong penalty kills in terms of shot metrics. The Lightning’s inconsistency on the penalty kill has been a big issue at times but overall, they’ve performed well.
The gap on special teams again is in the results. Both teams shoot a high percentage on the power play with the Lightning having a slight edge in that area. But goaltending shows a big difference. Tuukka Rask has been strong on the penalty kill for Boston while Andrei Vasilevskiy hasn’t been able to find similar success for the Lightning.
Overall, we start to see a theme emerge. The Bruins are slightly better at controlling play. The Lightning have an advantage in high end talent that leads to better finishing. As we acknowledged at the outset, our analysis is headed in an unsatisfying direction. It appears that this series could come down to whether the Lightning can overcome a disadvantage on the shot clock by shooting a higher percentage. So...a crapshoot.
With an understanding of how the teams performed as a whole this season, we’ll now look at the individual skaters for each team to understand who drove the positive results. In these charts, blue is good and orange is bad. Again, all data is via Corsica.
The Lightning have an exceptional collection of forward talent. Nikita Kucherov is on the periphery of the Hart Trophy conversation. Steven Stamkos is an elite goal scorer and one of the primary reasons that Tampa outscores its expected goal totals.
Brayden Point doesn’t get the same credit as the Stamkos and Kucherov but he isn’t far behind them in production. He emerged this season as a star but that news hasn’t quite made it around the hockey world yet because news takes a little longer to get out of Tampa than it does cities further north. But if the Bolts go deep this year, he will be one of the stories as the rest of the league discovers just how dominant he can be.
Alex Killorn and Yanni Gourde have also been excellent this season. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are both solid top six options. Johnson seemed to rediscover some of his playoff magic in the first round so we’ll see if that continues. That makes eight forwards who would be top six for any team in the league and we haven’t even named J.T. Miller yet.
That depth does not carry over to defense. I wrote about the blue line yesterday but the short version is that the Bolts have three top defenders and three players who need to be carefully managed.
Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Anton Stralman carry the load on defense. They play big minutes and need to be successful in those minutes if the Lightning hope to win. Mikhail Sergachev, Dan Girardi, and Braydon Coburn all play fewer minutes.
Sergachev is limited by the coaching staff because he’s a rookie but he has shown signs that he might be able to handle more responsibility. Girardi and Coburn are both aging veterans who provide some physicality in the defensive zone but not much more at this point on their careers.
Switching over to Boston, we see another team with plenty of talented players. The Bruins have a reputation as a one line team but that isn’t an accurate representation.
The top line of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand (vom) is one of the best in the league. They dominate the shot clock and they score at a high rate. Shutting them down isn’t a reasonable goal. The goal is instead should be to not get killed by them and hope to win against the other three lines.
That isn’t as easy as it might sound. The dominance of the top line combined with the lack of star power in the middle six is the reason the Bruins tend to be labeled a one-line team. But that’s a disservice to the rest of their roster. The addition of Rick Nash gave them three quality lines that can all put pressure on their opposition.
The second line featuring Nash, David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk has been dangerous. If you are not familiar with DeBrusk, he’s one of the new crop of Bruins that you’ll learn about this series. Danton Heinen on the third line with Riley Nash and David Backes is another player making a big impact in a depth role this season.
The Devils were a one-line team. The Bruins are not. And anyone who doesn’t know that yet will find out in the first period on Saturday.
On defense, the Bruins feature four big contributors. Zdeno Chara somehow still manages to put up positive results on the top pair with standout rookie Charlie McAvoy. Torey Krug carries the second pair. Matt Grzelcyk’s emergence on the third pair has given the Bruins even more depth, and his is another name you’ll get familiar with in this series if you aren’t already.
Both teams have depth to spare and that means matchups will be important. The coaching staffs have a real opportunity to create an advantage by identifying weaknesses to attack. In a lopsided series, coaching is less important. But in a close series like this, deciding how to deploy players can be a significant factor in determining the outcome. [Thank god Tampa has home-ice advantage for first change, then. - Acha]
Season Series Breakdown
Now that we’ve examined the teams as a whole and the individual skaters, let’s look at how the teams played against one another in the regular season. This chart contains score and venue (home/away) adjusted shot and expected goal share numbers for the four games Tampa and Boston played against one another this year. The data is via Corsica and Natural Stat Trick.
The Bruins won the season series 3-1 but as we saw in the first round, that isn’t particularly important. The Devils won the season series against the Lighting 3-0 and that didn’t carry over to the post season at all. What is meaningful is what we can learn about how the games went.
In keeping with what we saw in the team charts, the Bruins outshot the Lightning and generated more expected goals. In these games, the Lightning weren’t able to score at a high enough rate to overcome the shot differential.
Expecting the shot metric trends to change in the upcoming series is probably a lot ask. The Bruins are a dominant possession team. The Lightning suddenly figuring out how to control the puck against the Bruins would be a pleasant surprise but a surprise nonetheless. Instead, the Lightning will likely need to find a way to get close to breaking even in shots and rely on their shooting talent to outscore the Bruins. That isn’t a comforting narrative but if we’re honest about what we see in the data, that’s the most likely path to victory.
The series against New Jersey was the last time this season the Lightning will play games they are expected to win. They may be slight favorites as they are in this series but we’ll be talking 52/48 type favorites and that’s basically a coin flip. That means every game from here in will be a toss up and we are officially in the suffocating-on-your-heart-for-three-hours stage of the playoffs.
This team has the talent to win the cup. But it would be exactly 0% surprising if they lost this series to the Bruins. That’s the NHL. So get your lucky shirt. Get the cushions in the lucky spot on the couch set exactly tight. Stock up on your beverage choice. The playoffs are here for real now.