It would have been nice if the Montreal Canadiens found some way to knock off the Philadelphia Flyers. The Lightning would have become the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Habs would have been their second round opponent, and the match-up with the Boston Bruins would have been delayed a round, or depending on how well the New York Islanders played, prevented all together. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Much like meeting the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, facing off against the Bruins in the playoffs seemed inevitable.
If nothing else, this should add another chapter to the burgeoning rivalry between the two clubs. Based on the comments from our Tweet back in July, Lightning fans consider Boston their top rival (it definitely isn’t Florida as you can see by the results of the poll). Boston fans may disagree, simply because they’re Boston fans and like disagreeing about everything, or because they consider Montreal their main antagonist due to a slightly longer relationship with them.
While we can debate the intensity of the rivalry between the two franchises and their fan bases, we can agree that they don’t like each other on some level and that leads to fun, spirited hockey. Case in point the final regular season match-up this year - a 5-3 Lightning win that featured 94 combined penalty minutes, a line brawl, and Tampa Bay actually scoring a power play goal (sometimes it feels like they haven’t scored one of those since March 7th).
Will there be anywhere near that level of fireworks in any of the seven games (yes, let’s get that prediction out of the way right now, it’s going the distance)? Probably not, but there will be more than the average (or, in this Age of Covid - recommended) amount of pushing, shoving, face-washing, stick-jabbing, jaw-jacking, insult-hurling, rabbit-punching, and headlocking during this series. The linesmen are going to be hardest workers on the ice as they will be breaking up extracurricular shenanigans after just about every stoppage in play.
Special teams are going to be just as important for both sides and the Lightning are going to have to be wary of taking the lackadaisical penalties that they took against the Blue Jackets. Because, unlike Columbus, Boston does have some firepower on offense, especially with the extra skater. Against Carolina (and honestly, we can’t consider anything they did in the round robin portion of the postseason, because they were less than engaged in those three games) their power play went 5-for-19, a tidy 21% success rate.
Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron only accounted for two of those goals, which is bad news for the Lightning, because the Bruins generating all of their offense from just three players (as they did for most of the regular season) makes them way easier to defend. If David Krejci (3 goals overall, 2 on the power play) and Charlie Coyle (2 goals, 1 power play) are going to remember that they are allowed to score as well, things will be increasingly more difficult for Tampa Bay.
As for the Lightning power play...well. They aren’t at the point where they should start asking to decline the advantage, but they’re getting close. Against Columbus they went 0-for-10, the second year in a row that they’ve failed to score a power play against the Blue Jackets, which is just down right impressive. Since the Lightning did score two power play goals in the round robin, we’ll just say that the Blue Jackets have the greatest shorthanded squad in the history of the NHL, how about that?
As we, and countless other outlets, have opined, the number one reason for the lack of power in the play of the Lightning with the extra skater is due solely to the absence of Steven Stamkos. OK. Solely might be a bit of an overstatement, but his presence in the left circle simply can’t be duplicated. Columbus pretty much ignored who was in that spot during the series and focused on shutting down Nikita Kucherov’s options with the puck.
We shouldn’t pin all of the blame on the lack of Stamkos, though. Columbus also did a really good job of blocking shots (which should be their team slogan - Columbus Blue Jackets: We Block Shots!) and forcing the Lightning to work the puck around the ice on the perimeter instead of directly across the ice. There were no seams that allowed for the quick one-timers from either side of the ice.
The Bruins did allow 2 power play goals to the Hurricanes in 15 shorthanded chances. While an 86.7% kill rate is pretty good, it’s not 100% so the Lightning should have a chance. Expect Tampa Bay to generate more than the 2.8 shot attempts that Carolina had against the Bruins in their five games (the Bolts averaged 3.4 per chance against the Blue Jackets).
It’s not going to be much easier to get clean shots on net simply because Zdeno Chara blots out half of the ice by himself when he’s out there so the Lightning are going to have to be better at reacting and retrieving the pucks when they’re blocked then they were against Columbus. Sometimes a weird carom off of a block is just as effective at getting penalty killers out of place as a well-placed seam pass. However they do it, the Bolts have to find a way to score on the power play if they want to win the series.
Since we brought up Mr. Stamkos, let’s cut to the chase - no one has any idea if he’ll play in the series. At this point, it’s probably better to assume he won’t and then be wildly surprised if he does pop up on the ice.
At even strength, the Lightning are still a deeper team, but the advantage isn’t as great as it was against the Blue Jackets. While the Marchand/Bergeron/David Pastrnak line gets all of the press, the Bruins did do a good job of adding some secondary scoring by picking up Ondrej Kase at the deadline and, as mentioned earlier, David Krecji has remembered that he used to be pretty good at scoring goals.
Seven different forwards scored goals for Boston against Carolina (Connor Clifton was the lone goalscorer from the blueline) which is something they needed since Pastrnak missed Games Two, Three, and Four in the series. If he’s bouncing in and out of the line-up they’re going to need Coyle and Jake Debrusk to come through. Especially if the Anthony Cirelli line is tasked with shutting down Marchand and Bergeron.
Line matching will be key as well. In the first round Coach Cooper seemed content to forgo any offense from Cirelli and his line as long as they made life miserable for the top Columbus line. That worked out ok. While Cirelli, Alex Killorn, and Tyler Johnson didn’t light up the scoreboard it did allow the other two top lines to have an advantage in their match-ups, which they exploited fully.
Or, Coach Cooper could just throw his top line out against Marchand and his friends and have them fight out it out, freeing up the other two lines to run amok in the Boston end. It’s likely, however, that he’ll want to keep Brayden Point and Kucherov as far away as possible from Bergeron and hope that it pays off with the scoring of many goals.
Getting the puck into the net figures to be easier against Jaroslav Halak than it was against Joonas Korpisalo. Not much easier, but at least a little. Halak, inserted into the starting role after Tuukka Rask left the bubble, was not bad against the Carolina Hurricanes. He was actually good. He posted a 1.67 GAA and .932 SV% and saved slightly more goals than he was expected to. Shorthanded he stopped 14 of the 15 shots which portends more fun for the Lightning.
Lining up 200 feet away from him, Andrei Vasilevskiy can expect to be a little busier than he was against the Blue Jackets. The Bruins will spend more time in the Lightning zone in one game than Columbus did in the entire five-overtime game, so The Big Cat needs to be ready to face some shots. Tampa Bay fans should be excited about that proposition because he does seem to get better when the amount of pucks fired his way in anger increases. He also seemed to be getting more comfortable as the first round series went on.
There’s no need to get fancy with figuring out what the Lightning need to do to win this series. They have to stay out of the penalty box, play the Bergeron line to at least a draw, and score on the power play. If they pull off those three things the wins should take of themselves.
That being said, it’s going to be a knockdown, drag-out contest so get ready to have a fun roller coaster ride of emotions as the teams trade wins back-and-forth. Hopefully, when it’s all over the Lightning will be the first team to get four of those hard-fought wins.