The Bruins are under no illusions when it comes to the Tampa Bay Lightning as they ready for Sunday night’s Game 1 opener.
The B’s know their second-round series against the Bolts might just be their most daunting obstacle on the way to their goal of returning to the Stanley Cup Final for a second straight postseason. The Lightning have star power in players like two-way sensation Brayden Point, No. 1 defenseman Victor Hedman and Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy, and they have great supporting players with former Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Ryan McDonagh, Alex Killorn and Blake Coleman to name just a few players.
They will get even better if they welcome back a rehabbing Steven Stamkos at some point during the series.
The Bolts even boast a budding young franchise D-man in Mikhail Sergachev that just adds to the impressive talent level of a hockey club that can score, defend, exert a physical game and play the skate-and-skill game with anybody. Clearly, the B’s know they have their work cut out for them against a Lightning club that’s probably deeper than them entering a seven game series that will demand the best from each side.
“Going through this [postseason] you want to play good teams and they’re a hell of a team, and it’s going to be a good matchup. It’s going to be a challenge,” said Brad Marchand. “They have a bit of a different makeup now. They’re a lot more physical and they compete a lot harder, and obviously they have a ton of talent. They’re very fast and they have a great goalie. They have everything. They have all the makings of a great team, so it’s going to be a challenge.
“It’s going to be a tough one. We’re going to have to be at the top of our game to compete with them and beat them. We all know the top teams in the league and there’s different tiers basically, and the teams that are left are in that top tier. Whatever team comes out of this is because they played the best hockey and they got the bounces. These are the series that people want to see and these are the series that guys want to be a part of, and play in.”
With all the Lightning star power, how are the Black and Gold going to have a chance to beat the Bolts in a best-of-seven series? It comes down to a few different things that will need to go right while the B’s are going to have to play close to flawless hockey for at least four of the games in what’s sure to be a combative playoff series:
1. David Pastrnak needs to be Boston’s best player
The Bruins right winger only played in two games in the Carolina series, but finished with a goal and four points in the two games that he played including setting up the Game 1 OT game-winner. Pastrnak will be targeted physically early and often by the Lightning and they will try to discourage the B’s game-breaker.
At 24 years old, this is the time for Pastrnak to show he’s one of the best players in the NHL. The only way to do that, and to earn the respect of everybody around the league, is to dominate in the playoffs. Pastrnak has had some great moments including a 6-point game vs. the Maple Leafs a couple of years ago, but this is the kind of series where Pastrnak is going to have to be a weapon early and often.
Pastrnak was held without any even-strength goals in the series between the teams two years ago and managed just a single 5-on-5 assist in the final four games of that series once Tampa Bay got their bearings. We may see Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron get worn down by the big, physical Tampa defensemen matched up against them, but they can counteract that with the speed, skills and lethal scoring ability that Pastrnak shows regularly during the regular season.
Now, he needs to bring it in the biggest series against their biggest postseason obstacle.
2. The Bruins power play needs to dominate the series.
Tampa showed a couple of seasons ago in the playoffs that they could neutralize Boston’s best players during even strength, and effectively won the playoff series in five games because they won that battleground. One would expect the B’s to be a little better during even strength at this point, but they also need to realize that a productive power play operating at high efficiency can counteract some of the even-strength inadequacy.
This will come down to Pastrnak shooting the puck and being dangerous from the face-off dot, but it will also come down to Bruce Cassidy’s strategy. Cassidy loaded up on the top PP unit by leaving David Krejci out on the elbow with the top group even after Pastrnak returned for Game 5, and the power play exploded for two PP goals while dominating and creating chances every time they were out on the ice.
It will leave the second PP unit a bit bereft, but loading up on the No. 1 power play unit with their best offensive talent makes sense given how important it’s going to be to generate offense for the Black and Gold. The Bruins would be wise to keep riding Cassidy’s innovation from Game 5 in the first round vs. Carolina.
3. Jaroslav Halak needs to get hot.
Halak had his ups and downs in the first-round series against the Hurricanes, but won all three games he started and finished with a .932 save percentage in those three victories. That’s pretty good all things considered.
Much will be asked of Halak given that he’s expected to play all seven games, including back-to-backs in Games 2 and 3 and Games 6 and 7, over an 11-day period, but the 35-year-old goalie has shown that he can take over a playoff series all by himself before. He did in 2010 as a member of the Montreal Canadiens when the Habs upset the heavily favored Washington Capitals because Halak stood on his head for the entirety of the series, so there is past precedent here.
The B’s just need history to repeat itself and for Halak to get to that otherworldly level for a couple of weeks against a team that’s sure to throw a lot of rubber at the Boston net.
4. The Bruins need to keep the physicality up.
The Lightning have tough customers up front and on the big end, they have massive bodies with Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh around the net and they have added gritty, competitive forwards in Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow on their third line. These are players that Bruins fans are going to hate by the time this series is through, and Coleman is the kind of guy Bruins management also wanted at the deadline because he brings quite a bit to the table in a playoff scenario.
The B’s go from a Carolina team that was ultimately soft in the middle, to a Tampa Bay team that will be much easier to exploit and ultimately conquer. The B’s need to take the bruising lead from Charlie McAvoy in the first-round series against Carolina, and that means taking their shots at the Lightning when they present themselves.
Beating the Lightning is going to take every ounce of what the B’s have from an offensive, defensive and physical standpoint, and that means bringing it for all seven games. The B’s certainly seem like they are prepared to do that, and they must know at this point they’ll be facing a Tampa Bay team that thinks it is their time to advance as well.
The bottom line: It’s not going to be easy. They are going to need their top young players like Pastrnak and McAvoy to shine, they are going to need secondary offensive performers like Jake DeBrusk and Charlie Coyle to kick in offense and they are going to need their backup goaltender to play like a Conn Smythe candidate for the next two weeks. It’s possible to be sure, but there are many things that will need to go right if the B's want to be the last hockey club standing when this second-round series is over.