Haggerty: How the B's and Lightning match up
Breaking down the series
It’s a playoff series that pretty much everybody has envisioned since the midpoint of the regular season. The Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning went back-and-forth for the top spot in the Eastern Conference in the final few weeks of the regular season, and now thanks to the NHL playoff structure the two top regular-season teams in the East are going to meet in the second round of the playoffs.
The good news for the Bruins is that they match up tremendously well with the Lightning and have taken seven of the past eight regular-season meetings. That includes three out of four this season and a shutout win over the Bolts in Tampa where the Bruins had no Patrice Bergeron, no Zdeno Chara and no Charlie McAvoy.
All that being said, the Lightning are a much better and more experienced team than the Maple Leafs and Toronto gave Boston everything they could handle in a seven-game series that came down to the third period of Game 7.
“They’ve had some time to rest, and if they had any injuries, probably get a little healthier. That’s the advantage of winning in five [games]. If we had done the same thing, then we would have that advantage, as well. Going into it Saturday, we are battle tested now, and we’ve got to bring that mentality into the next round,” said Bruce Cassidy. “As far as seeing them three times in the last month that will clearly help our preparation. So that’s the one positive.
“We’re familiar with their players. After the deadline, they changed a bit of their roster, obviously. We’ve played them well; I think our guys will be confident in that end. Listen, two good teams again. We’ve just got to be ready.”
After getting pushed to their highest level late in the series against the Maple Leafs, the Bruins should be ready for the Lightning, so here’s how they stack up against each other:
Edge: Boston. Bruce Cassidy has done an excellent job this season, certainly has the attention of his group and has posted a stellar 68-27-13 record since taking over for Claude Julien last season. In any other season where an expansion team in Vegas didn’t make NHL history, he’d be a shoo-in for the Jack Adams Trophy that he’s now a finalist for. After going toe-to-toe with Mike Babcock and his clam chowder soliloquies in the first round, he matches wits with Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who has done a good job since arriving there and, similar to Cassidy, worked his way up through the AHL. Cassidy made the right moves in Game 7 sticking to his normal lineup, including Danton Heinen, and also sticking with Tuukka Rask on a night when he clearly didn’t have it. So, now he’s as battle-tested as his players, and he’s got the advantage over Cooper after so many of his moves panned out for the Bruins this season.
Edge: Tampa Bay. Both teams have talented, high end, elite top lines. The Bruins have Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, who accounted for nine goals and 30 points for the B’s in round one while propelling them to victory. For the Lightning, it’s centered around Nikita Kucherov with his five goals and 10 points in five games against the Devils and his big hit on Sami Vatanen that knocked the Devils out of the short-lived first-round series. But they also have Steve Stamkos, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde up front, along with experienced, gritty role players like Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz. Jake DeBrusk stepped up and gave the B’s five goals and seven points in the first round vs. Toronto, but this is another series where Tampa Bay has the edge in the depth department even if they can’t quite match Boston’s top line.
Edge: Tampa Bay. The Bruins were forced to play Zdeno Chara 28 plus minutes in Game 7 and they likewise played Charlie McAvoy big minutes as well in a must-win game against the Maple Leafs. Both players were okay against the Maple Leafs and did a good job of holding down Auston Matthews defensively, and McAvoy even appeared to be skating and moving the puck around a little better in the last few games of the series. Torey Krug also leads all NHL defensemen in scoring after the first round with his two goals and nine points vs. Toronto. But all that being said, Victor Hedman is the best D-man playing in the series and he plays for Tampa Bay. They also have Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh among others and can throw out an extremely formidable defensemen crew that will be able to better hold down Boston’s top line at times. This is an area where the Bruins had the advantage over the Leafs in Round One, but they will not have that same luxury in Round Two against a better Tampa Bay team.
Edge: Even. Tuukka Rask had some good moments (Game 4 in Toronto) and some rough moments (Game 7 was bad, bad and more bad) while posting an .899 save percentage in the first round, but the Bruins managed to advance in spite of some of the shortcomings. Andrei Vasilevskiy, on the other hand, had an ideal first-round opponent in the offensively light New Jersey Devils and the Tampa Bay goalie turned that into a .941 save percentage in the five games against the Devils. Vasilevskiy is also one of the finalists for the Vezina Trophy after a very strong season. One would think that the Lightning would have a major advantage here, but the Vasilevskiy, 23, isn’t nearly as experienced as Rask in the postseason (seven career playoff starts in the NHL entering this season) and showed some signs of fatigue late in the season after a heavy workload this year. It wouldn’t surprise at all if one or both of those things cropped up in this series, and made the goalie matchup a lot closer than one might expect at the outset.
Edge: Boston. The Bruins have a great power play. Tampa Bay has a great power play. The Bruins have one of the NHL’s best penalty kills and did a pretty good job of holding down Toronto’s PP. Tampa Bay does not with the 27th ranked penalty kill in the regular season. This is one of the biggest areas where the Bruins can do some damage if they can get the man-advantage, and really hammer the Lightning with the upper hand in special teams play. Clearly, they are going to have to work for their power plays after watching one penalty get called on Toronto in Games 3 and 4 played at the Air Canada Centre, and Tampa is going to try to make this a 5-on-5 series as much as possible. Still, if the Bruins can turn this series into a contest of special-teams units as they did at times while going 7-for-22 vs. the Maple Leafs, they are going to probably enjoy the outcome.
Edge: Boston. All one had to do was watched and listen to the aftermath of Game 7 vs. Toronto to know that Boston’s experience in the postseason played a big role in them getting past the Maple Leafs. Chara stood up and spoke, everybody in the Bruins dressing room listened and then they went out and blew Toronto out of the building in the final 20 minutes. Chara, Bergeron, Marchand, David Krejci and Adam McQuaid have all won before and know what it takes to get back to the mountaintop. The Lightning have come close but never made it all the way, and that’s going to put a lot of pressure on Stamkos, Hedman and Kucherov to make it happen with a team that’s squarely in the middle of their window to compete for Cups. Tampa Bay is going to be expected to win this series, so there is going to be a much bigger burden on the Bolts shoulder than on the Bruins, who are now playing with house money after making a nice step by advancing past the first round.
Edge: Tampa Bay. The Bruins are no slouches in the star department with the best forward line in the entire league and Pastrnak could turn out to be the best player in the entire tournament when it’s all said and done if the B’s go on a deep run. But the Lightning have Stamkos, they have the favorite for Hart Trophy in Kucherov, they have one of the top three Vezina candidates in Vasilevskiy and they have the best D-men for either team in Norris Trophy candidate Hedman. The Lightning are full of NHL superstars that are right now in their prime while the Bruins only sent one player (Brad Marchand) to the All-Star game this season. If it turns into a battle of NHL stars in this series, then it’s probably going to be a battle that’s won by Tampa Bay. It should be noted, though, that these are the kind of spots where new NHL stars are formed, and players like Jake DeBrusk and Charlie McAvoy will have that opportunity in a series that Boston enters as underdogs.
The Lightning in seven. The Bruins have taken seven of eight in the regular season against the Lighting the past two seasons and traditionally have enjoyed very good success against a quality Tampa Bay team. They tend to make Tampa uncomfortable with their physical play and can match up with their top players effectively. The one question for the B’s would be the health and effectiveness of players like Patrice Bergeron and Charlie McAvoy after they seemed less than 100 percent in the first round, and just how long the 41-year-old Zdeno Chara can play at his current level as the playoff burden gets heavier with each passing round. The Lightning are the favorite in this series and should win it in relatively comfortable fashion, but it shouldn’t surprise anybody if the Bruins push them to the absolute limit. At this point, I just think the Bruins paid too much of a heavy price in the first-round beating the Leafs to now get by the Lightning.