It took me a couple days to decompress a bit from the Tampa Bay Lightning’s series with the Boston Bruins. I wanted to give myself a little bit of time and distance before expressing my thoughts about the series. Now, I’m ready to dive into it. Let’s Go!
Rivalries are formed in the playoffs. While the Lightning don’t have as long of a playoff history as some other teams out there, the amount of playoff hockey they’ve played over the past six years has led to some rather intense rivalries. The Detroit Red Wings. The Montreal Canadiens. The Boston Bruins.
This was only the third time in the past ten postseasons that the Lightning have played against the Bruins. The first one is seared in fans memories as the Lightning had an improbable playoff run and stretched the Bruins to a Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning weren’t able to prevail and make to the Stanley Cup Final, but the Bruins took it all.
The last time the Lightning met the Bruins in the playoffs was in 2017-18. While it only lasted five games, it was an intense series. The Lightning lost the first game, but then finished off the gentleman’s sweep winning the next four games, including an overtime win in Game Four, to finish them off. This year the Lightning also pulled off the gentleman’s sweep and it was just as sweet. Especially with how confident Bruins’ fans and media seemed to be going into the series.
How the Lightning Did It
Bruins’ fans and media members in particular can be insufferable. This series was no different. They went into the series full of confidence. “How can the Lightning hope to match the Perfection Line? How can they hope to deal with a David Krejci firing on all cylinders? How can they bottle up Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy on the back end? How can they hope to beat Jaroslav Halak with the way he shut down the Carolina Hurricanes?”
Well, now we know the answers to that.
The Lightning didn’t have much luck in shutting down the so-called “Perfection Line” of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak - at least on the power play. Pastrnak, despite playing through a lower body injury and not having the best conditioning after missing some time earlier due to the injury, ended up with two goals and six points in five games. However, only two points, both assists, came at even strength. Marchand did a little more at even strength with two goals and an assist at even strength and added two more goals on the power play. Bergeron wasn’t much of a factor either with just two assists, one each at even strength and the power play.
Their top line was dangerous, and had to be answered. But they weren’t exactly overwhelming either with so much of their damage coming on the power play. Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde’s lines got a lot of the ice time against Bergeron’s line. Cirelli’s line was getting caved in possession-wise, but got some good goaltending behind them to bail them out. The Gourde line was able to turn the tables on Bergeron’s line through their aggressive puck play.
David Krejci also cooled off quite a bit for the Bruins. He put up eight points in five games against Carolina, but only managed a goal and two assists against the Lightning with his goal being his only even strength point. Five of his points against Carolina though came on the power play with just one even strength goal and two assists.
Torey Krug also failed to get anything going offensively at even strength. His three points all came from power play assists. Charlie McAvoy likewise was a non-factor offensively failing to register a single point against the Lightning, though he hadn’t done much against the Hurricanes either with two assists, one at even strength and one short handed.
All-in-all, Halak didn’t have the worst performance he could have had. He kept the Bruins in a couple games longer than they should have. But ultimately, he was not up to the task or up to the level that Andrei Vasilevskiy was in the series. His best game was game one when he allowed only two goals with a .946 SV% in a win. After that though, he allowed three goals twice and four goals in two other games. In the four losses, he had an .880 SV% and finished at .896 SV% for the series. He was also a -1.94 GSAA during the series.
Now that we’ve answered the questions that the Bruins fans and media had, how did the Lightning answer their own questions?
Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov continued the dominating play they established in the first round. Point recorded a goal and seven assists for 8 points. Only one point, an assist, came on the power play. Kucherov added two goals and seven points to his total, though he picked up four assists on the power play. Ondrej Palat though was the surprise performer for the first line. He picked up five goals and seven points and became the fourth Lightning player in franchise history to record a goal in four straight playoff games.
Beyond the Lightning’s Performance Line, they got depth scoring. Victor Hedman picked up four goals and six assists. Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow combined for three goals and five assists, all at even strength. The second line was underwhelming, but that was fine with the Lightning getting depth scoring from the third line.
Kevin Shattenkirk and Mikhail Sergachev also contributed depth scoring from the blue line combining for a goal and seven points. Zach Bogosian even got in on the action with two assists including one on an absolute beauty of play where he muscled through the defense and shoveled a pass across for a diving Coleman to deflect home.
Ultimately, the Lightning’s success can be put down to two particular things; their defensive structure and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy has the fourth highest xFSv% so far in the second round. A higher xFSv% means that the opponent’s shots are less dangerous. Even with that defensive structure in front of him limiting the Bruins’ chances, he still came up big and exceed his xFSV%. He sported a 4.45 GSAA in the series and is the current leader for the second round (though there are some games left to play as I write this).
I think as fans, in any sport, there’s a penchant for over-hyping and over-criticizing players on your own team. Vasilevskiy has been a bit of an over-hype with fans often overestimating his impact on the game. From a statistics point of view, he has often been average to slightly above average, instead of elite. This series though, he was hot and looked the part of an elite goaltender.
We still don’t know who the Lightning will face in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Flyers won last night to stretch their series out to game seven. Both teams offer up distinct and different challenges for the Lightning.
The Flyers are a much more offensive team than the Islanders. They have better offensive talent both at forward and on their blue line. They also have a good, young goaltender in Carter Hart, though he has had his ups and downs. If the Lightning face the Flyers, Hart’s inexperience is something the Lightning could take advantage of. Strike early and shake his confidence and they could have a shaky goaltender to play against the rest of the series. But allow him to build some confidence and some rhythm, and you have a goaltender that can steal some games.
The Islanders are a very sound, defensively structured team. The Bruins had that same kind of structure, but the Lightning found a way to impose their own structure on the game and put pressure on the Bruins. The Islanders are also similar to what the Lightning got from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. The difference is that the Blue Jackets wish they were what the Islanders are, from both a structure and talent stand point.
Don’t be fooled though, because the Islanders still have some offensive talent to lean on. They wouldn’t have gotten this far into the playoffs without it. Josh Bailey is a dynamic young winger that combines well with Brock Nelson and Mathew Barzal at the top of their line up. Anthony Beauvillier has finally started to come into his own (and ironically, the Lightning could have drafted him instead of trading the pick away and drafting Mitchell Stephens and Anthony Cirelli). The Isles also picked up Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the trade deadline and he has been their goal scoring leaders in the playoffs.
The road to the Cup only gets harder from here. The Lightning have a tough test in the Eastern Conference Finals. But having only played ten games, even with the overtimes they’ve had to endure, they should be reasonably well rested going into the third round. If the Lightning can make it through that test, then it’s on to the Stanley Cup Final.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves yet. Focus on the next opponent. Play to the team structure. Keep finding production from the depth pieces. And most importantly, stay healthy (and maybe get Steven Stamkos back in the line up to help the power play).