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Morning After Thoughts: Were Bruins the best? Lightning’s depth says no

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Boston was never the de facto best team in the East.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Boston Bruins - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

As the 2019-2020 season progressed, I never subscribed the the train of thought that the Boston Bruins were the best team in the NHL. Were they among the best? Absolutely, but they were not head and shoulders ahead of every other team in the league. Supporters of this mentality will point to the fact that they were the only 100-point team in this shortened season, but that ignores a glaring hole in their argument: the Bruins were only one win better than the second-best team (record wise) in the league.

Boston was propped up by the second-most loser points this season with 12, only the Columbus Blue Jackets had more with 15. The Bruins had 44 wins before the pause whereas the team with the second-most wins, Tampa Bay, had 43. Yet, Boston had an eight-point lead over the Lightning because they had double the amount of OT loses than Tampa Bay.

This is why in nearly every podcast I’ve appeared on this season I’ve stated that I don’t think Boston is the clear-cut best team in the league. In my mind, there were four teams that were tied for the best; Tampa Bay, Boston, Vegas, and Colorado. I had an underlying feeling St. Louis wasn’t as good this year, Philadelphia’s consistency worried me, Washington was not the same team as they were two years ago, Pittsburgh felt like they were on borrowed time, and Toronto was the embodiment of a pretender trying to be a contender.

That said, the series between the Bruins and the Lightning has revealed the real depth of both rosters, and it hasn’t been pretty for Boston. Through the first four games of this series, the Bruins have scored eight goals and half of those are from the power-play. Comparatively, the Lightning have scored sixteen goals with four coming from the power-play.

Additionally, Boston has only seen five different players score a goal in the series: Brad Marchand leads the way with four goals in the series while David Pastrnak, Charlie Coyle, Nick Ritchie, and Jake DeBrusk all have one. The Lightning have seen eight different players score goals: Ondrej Palat has four, Victor Hedman has three, Nikita Kucherov has two, Blake Coleman has two, Alex Killorn has two, Brayden Point has one, and Yanni Gourde has one.

Taking a look at the metrics and it’s clear who the better team is in this series.

Tampa Bay 5v5 Metrics vs Boston

GP CF CA GF GA xGF% SCF SCA HDCF HDCA HDGF HDGA SH% SV% PDO
GP CF CA GF GA xGF% SCF SCA HDCF HDCA HDGF HDGA SH% SV% PDO
4 200 176 11 4 59.95 92 73 40 24 8 4 10.48 95.24 1.057

The Lightning lead in every category needed to assert dominance in a series, and their lead is justified through the first four games. This is especially thanks to the moves that general manager Julien BriseBois made at the trade deadline in Barclay Goodrow and Coleman. Those players combined with Yanni Gourde effectively gave the Lightning two second lines, in addition to their top line, to attack the opposition. The Anthony Cirelli line with Tyler Johnson and Killorn are still struggling to drive play against top competition, but the Point and Gourde lines have tilted the ice so heavily in the Lightning’s favor that it hasn’t mattered as much (the Cirelli line still needs to be better moving forward, though).

Another player we should heap praise on for his play this postseason is Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Goals Saved vs Expectation, Playoffs 2019-2020
Sean Tierney, www.chartinghockey.ca

Of the remaining goaltenders in the postseason, only Philadelphia’s Carter Hart has done a better job at giving his team a chance to win on a nightly basis (also take note of how Tampa Bay had to get through the unlikely wall that was Joonas Korpisalo in the first round—the biggest reason Columbus even stood a chance). The Big Cat has looked far more composed and focused during this postseason than previous years and it’s shown in his play. He’s tracking the puck far more consistently than before, and his ability to hold the fort while the Lightning struggled at certain junctures has been paramount to their success so far. I’m inclined to think the prolonged time off did wonders for Vasilevskiy’s play, which only strengthens the idea of managing his starts more effectively during the regular season even more, but that is a discussion for a separate article.

Another facet of Tampa Bay’s dominance in this series has been their forecheck. Spearheaded by Gourde’s line, the Lightning have forced Boston to rush while trying to exit their defensive zone, and it’s created a bevy of turnovers, poor decisions, and poor passes that have enabled Tampa Bay to counter attack repeatedly. Combining this with Lightning’s 1-1-3 neutral zone strategy that attempts to outnumber the opposing forwards as they enter the Lightning zone, and it’s understandable why the Bruins have been frustrated and failing at 5v5.

If it wasn’t for the Bruins stellar power-play, one that has scored in every game of the series, this would look even more lopsided.

The biggest thing the Lightning need to do now is to key in on their killer instinct and close out the series on Monday. Boston won’t go out quietly, so expect a furious push from them in Game Five, but as long as the Lightning stick to their game and don’t allow themselves to be drawn into any extra-curricular activities (read: keep the game at 5v5) then they should be able to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.