BOSTON – The Bruins have barely come down from the high of winning Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they’ve already got to set their sights on an even bigger challenge waiting this weekend in Tampa Bay.
The Bruins will next face the Eastern Conference regular-season champion Tampa Bay Lightning, who just edged out the Black and Gold for the top spot in the East at the end of the regular season when Boston dropped their regular season finale against the Florida Panthers.
“Well, they won the Eastern Conference. I think it’s equally a formidable if not even more so task [than the Maple Leafs]. Not a lot of holes in their lineup. We had some success in the regular season against them,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney. “We’re going to have to find a way to replicate that and probably be even better. We had pockets of our game in this past series that we know we need to improve upon, and it’s going to take our best effort from start to finish to play against Tampa. We’re a confident group to go in. We deserve to be here. We’re moving on and I’m sure they feel the same way.”
The good news is that the Bruins took three out of four games from the Lightning this season, and have fared very well against the Bolts over the last couple of seasons. Tuukka Rask, in particular, has been very strong against Tampa and finished with a .926 save percentage along with the three victories against them this season.
The bad news for the Bruins is that they’re a much better team than the Toronto Maple Leafs with a better defense, a better goaltender and a more explosive array of experienced forwards including Steve Stamkos, Hart Trophy favorite Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson among others. Certainly, they’re going to need better than the .899 save percentage that Rask posted in the seven games series against the Maple Leafs, and they’re going to need more support scoring beyond a Bruins top line that will have their hands full against Victor Hedman the Tampa defense.
“It’s going to be a battle. They were a top team all year. They compete very hard, have a ton of skill, and they have a lot of depth,” said Brad Marchand, who finished second among the Bruins with five points in the four games vs. Tampa this season behind only the six points from Torey Krug. “We’ll look at them a little bit more in the next few days, but we’re going to enjoy this one tonight.”
One area where the Bruins are going to be able to do some damage? The Tampa Bay penalty kill was 27th in the league this season, and they’ll be going up against a Bruins power play that scored on 31.8 percent (7-for-22) of their PP chances in the first round against a better Toronto penalty kill. That will be one area where the Black and Gold can do a lot of damage, but they clearly go into the second round series as the prohibitive underdogs.
In all truthfulness, however, the Bruins are playing with house money right now. They took that next step by going from a return to the playoffs last season to winning a round and advancing deeper into the postseason with the second round date vs. the Bolts. Sure, they have Cup aspirations and the B’s will push as deeply as they can on their postseason run, but there will be little pressure on the Black and Gold at this point to win a best-of-seven series that they’re not expected to win against the favored Lightning.
That’s not a bad spot to be in for the young, gritty and battle-hardened Black and Gold.