BOSTON – The Boston Bruins know what to expect from the Tampa Bay Lightning—three strong offensive forwards and one unusual defensive alignment.
Going seven days without a game gave Bruins coaches plenty of time to prepare for the Eastern Conference finals.
“Every day our head was in the upcoming series,” coach Claude Julien said Friday. “The players are the ones that are given days off and are told to just kind of get away from the rink for a bit and then come back. We have to have things prepared for them.”
The preparations are just about over.
The Bruins and Lightning, who have the same regular-season and post-season records, start the best-of-seven series Saturday night.
By the time the first puck is dropped, Tampa Bay will have gone nine days without a game since it swept the Washington Capitals. Two days later, the Bruins completed their four-game sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers.
“I know a lot of people said they were hoping that (Bruins) series would last longer and that they would get tired out,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “I was actually hoping for the opposite so that we’d both be in the same boat and we will be.”
The Bruins have dominated the Lightning in Boston with a 23-4-6 record. But the scoring skills of Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier and a 1-3-1 defensive alignment that clogs the neutral zone could silence Bruins fans.
St. Louis was second in the NHL in both points (99) and assists (68), Stamkos was second with 45 goals, and Lecavalier had 25 goals and 29 assists in 65 games. In 11 playoff games, they’ve combined for 15 goals. And Sean Bergenheim, a third-line wing, has a surprising seven goals.
“Every team you play has got some players that you’ve got to keep a close eye on,” Julien said. “Hopefully, they’re thinking the same way about our players. … We’ve handled other teams pretty well and we’re going to have to handle those guys just as well if we plan on having success.”
Defenceman Zdeno Chara, at six-foot-nine without skates, will have a big role in that.
“He’s the biggest guy in the league and that stick is pretty long,” Lecavalier said. “He’s a great defenceman, and when you play against him, you have to play behind him. You can’t just use your strength because you’ll lose. You have to play behind him and get pucks behind him and make him skate as much as you can.”
The Lightning also present a defensive challenge with their 1-3-1 setup in which a checker pressures the puck carrier. Then the Bruins must get past a three-man line in the neutral zone. If they just dump the puck in, the defenceman can get it and start the transition to offence.
In their 11 playoff games with that system, the Lightning have allowed 24 goals.
“It’s a big part of their game and they’ve made the last two teams pay a lot for it,” said Milan Lucic, Boston’s leading regular-season goal scorer who broke a 20-game drought with two goals in his last game. “We’ve got to be smart with that. … our (defencemen) have done a good job supporting each other. And as forwards we’ve done a good job giving them outlets.”
The Bruins know they can’t make major changes in the way they play. After all, it’s gotten them to the conference finals for the first time since 1992.
“They’ve been successful with what they’ve been doing and I think we’ve been successful for what we’ve been doing,” said Boston’s Chris Kelly, who is expected to move up to second-line centre while Patrice Bergeron recovers from a mild concussion. “You can get over-focused and overanalyse what your opponent’s going to do.”
The Bruins are playing perhaps their best hockey of the season with eight wins in nine games. They’re 4-0 in overtime in the playoffs and, backed by goalie Tim Thomas, allowed only seven goals in four games with the Flyers.
But their leading playoff scorer, Bergeron, second in the NHL in faceoffs won in this post-season, is expected to miss at least the opener.
Lightning left wing Simon Gagne is likely to return after sitting out three games with a concussion.
Last year, he scored the final goal in Philadelphia’s 4-3 win over Boston in Game 7 of the conference semifinals. The Flyers lost the first three games then overcame a 3-0 deficit to score the last four goals in the finale with the Bruins.
“They’re on a mission this year,” Gagne said. “Just watching the last two games when they played against Philly (this year), they understand what it takes to win now. They learned a lot from last year.”
The Bruins were 3-1 against the Lightning this season, although three of those games were before Tampa Bay obtained goalie Dwayne Roloson. He didn’t play in the fourth.
He’s allowed just 23 goals in the playoffs, an average of 2.01 per game. Thomas, a Vezina Trophy finalist, is right behind at 2.03 for the Bruins.
“They’ve got a great defensive corps. They’ve got a great goalie. They’ve got some veterans really stepping it up offensively,” Stamkos said. “It will be an exciting series.”