By: Leon Lifschutz | Follow me on Twitter @LeonLifschutz
The two best teams in the Eastern Conference will meeting in round 2. Tampa Bay slayed their 2019 demon by handling the Columbus Blue Jackets in 5 games. Meanwhile, Boston stayed the course by dispatching Carolina for the second year in row in just 5 games after a lackluster round-robin performance. This second round match-up between the two adversaries seemed destined even before the pandemic. Despite the prolonged journey, here we are. Odds makers have this one as a coin flip, not great news for partisan fans but hopefully a promise of a riveting series. Let’s get into the breakdown!
Top Story Lines
Playoff Krech – David Krejci has been a difference maker so far these playoffs. In this detailed piece on Krejci’s play, The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa discusses Krejci’s difference-making on the power-play, in stabilizing the second line, and defending leads late in games. Krejci’s facilitation skills have led to key performances from Jake Debrusk and Ondrej Kase. Both are key secondary scorers that will be needed for any prolonged playoff run. Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, and Charlie Coyle down the middle account for one of the strongest center groups in the league and make match-ups harder on opposing teams. Krejci’s play will need to continue against a deep and explosive Lightning team who are also deep down the middle with Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, and Yanni Gourde.
Even Strength Play – Both the Bruins and Lightning have struggled to convert on their even strength opportunities thus far in the restart. Despite Tampa’s immense talent, the line of Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, and Gourde (dubbed the “gnats line”) have thus far been the most efficient 5v5 unit. The Bruins top line, though it spent time without David Pastrnak, has continued to win the possession battles but has not been as dominant as usual or produced much on the score sheet. If either team’s top end talent gets back to their usual success rates, it could be what decides the series.
Steven Stamkos – The Lightning’s captain continues to be out indefinitely. While Tampa has proven capable of winning without him, they are so much stronger with him. His inclusion on their top line bumps Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson lower in the lineup, spots where they can feast on lesser competition. Most importantly, Stamkos gives a shot in the arm to the powerplay. This is an area where the Lightning have really struggled during the season and against Columbus. The franchise icon would be a difference maker if he were to return.
Even in the absence of Steven Stamkos the Lightning ice a strong top 6. If he were to return it would make the Lightning that much more formidable. The Bruins can match the Lightning fairly well in the upper parts of the lineup but the “perfection line” will need to be a little more perfect at even strength this series. Hopefully, a healthy Pastrnak will aid in that effort. The Lightning’s bottom 6 can also be difference makers. They present a different challenge than the top 6 with a more north to south playing style. While both teams will likely be influenced by their top players, depth players could play a key role in this series.
Both teams are deep on defense and defend well as a team. However, some of the Bruins defenders struggled in the opening round. The pair of Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo ended up on the wrong side of the ledger against the tenacious Hurricanes. Zdeno Chara has also struggled to get back up to speed. Charlie McAvoy has often carried the load posting team leading minute totals into the mid 20s along with strong underlying numbers. The Bruins will need some of their key defenders to improve against Tampa. While Tampa’s D can move the puck, they are also big and physical in their own zone. The Lightning have one of the more dynamic 3rd pairs in Kevin Shattenkirk and Mikhail Sergachev. Victor Hedman, one of the best, and Ryan McDonagh, make for a real tough 1-2 punch on the left side.
Jaroslav Halak was thrust into Game 3 after learning of his start just hours before. With Tuukka Rask at home tending to family issues this is Halak’s team. Halak originally made a name for himself in the playoffs and is not a stranger to a playoff run. The Slovakian netminder was composed in game 3, much needed given the jarring news of Rask’s departure. He had a wobbly game 4 but did enough to get the win after his team stormed back in the 3rd. And he had a solid game 5 making a few key stops to propel the Bruins the next round. According to Natural Stattrick, Halak carries a .912 save percentage into the next round and has saved 0.11 goals above average per 60 minutes. For a Bruins team that has a disciplined defensive mindset, a continuation of Halak’s steady play could be enough.
Andrei Vasilevskiy can truly steal games. The Russian netminder had a heavy workload this year and was good in the regular season though not to his usual elite numbers. He wasn’t heavily tested against the Jackets but was good enough when needed, posting a .924 save percentage. If either starter were to go down, Tampa has the marked advantage in the experienced Curtis McElhinney versus rookie Dan Vladar.
By the Numbers
Statistics for 5v5 play
|BOS Regular||BOS Playoffs||Team||TB Playoffs||TB Regular|
The numbers bear out what most people already know, that this is a close match up between two excellent teams. Tampa Bay’s numbers are better in the playoffs than Bostons’ but there are some important caveats to mention. The “playoff” numbers include the round-robin games which depress the Bs numbers a bit. The Lightning played 5 games against the more conservative Blue Jackets while the Bruins played the high octane Carolina Hurricanes.
One item to note is that both teams have under performed in shooting percentage at even strength thus far in the playoffs. Both teams have the talent to regularly outperform their expected goal totals but have not done so since returning to play. The Bruins succeeded against the Hurricanes by keeping them at bay defensively and capitalizing on the power play. Tampa Bay outlasted the stingy Blue Jackets on the back of strong defensive effort of their own along with some timely saves. The Lightning did dominate the Jackets in percentages which suggest the series shouldn’t have even been as tight as it was.
The Bruins special teams, much like it was against Carolina, could be the difference maker in this series. One of the leagues best units in the regular season, the Bs top unit started to heat up with the inclusion of David Krejci. With Krejci and a healthy Pastrnak, the unit could be lethal. As discussed, Stamkos’ absence really hurts the Lightning on the powerplay and the results have been average at best despite trotting out some strong talent on the man advantage. If the Bruins continue their current trajectory on special teams, it may propel the Black N’ Gold to another conference final.
Tactical Keys to the Series
The Lightning’s offensive zone movement is one of its keys to success. As a 5 man unit, they continuously flow throughout the zone creating new seams and openings to move the puck. A defenseman is just as likely to be low as a forward and the forwards frequently swing high to create an option. Here is an example of their Ozone motion. Note the forward bringing the puck high and the D-man, Sergachev rotating down and scoring.
The Bruins will need to be disciplined on this motion and not chase the Lightning players around the zone. They will need to pack the house and force Tampa to play on the outside. The Bruins layered defense will also have to be careful not to get stuck low in the zone, a problem they had at times against Carolina.
However, the Lightning have augmented their game a bit adding a new dimension to their attack. With the additions of Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, and Patrick Maroon to the bottom 6, Tampa can also play straight line hockey. That couldn’t be more apparent than in the following example of the “Gnats Line” at work.
The Bruins, similarly to their series against Carolina, will have to be aware of the pressure being put on them on the forecheck. This style of play will be especially apparent from Tampa’s 3rd and 4th lines. If the Bruins can get back on pucks and be patient on defense they should be able to weather the attack. Taking advantage of their opportunities the other way certainly would help too.
Prediction: This will be an incredibly close series. In the end, the Bruins special teams will make the difference. Bruins in 7 #LetsGooo