The Eastern Conference semi-finals begins in earnest this evening (8PM EST) with the Boston Bruins taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning. This series pits the top two teams in the Eastern Conference from the regular season and the last two Presidents’ Trophy winners.
Their is no love lost between these two teams and the series is expected to be a physical series, mixing a heavy brand of hard hitting hockey with the top end skill that both of these teams possess. We have dissected the angles and have come down with our top 10 keys if the Boston Bruins hope to move one step closer to their 4th Stanley Cup Final in the last 10 seasons.
#10) Nick Ritchie: The 6’2″, 235lb forward was acquired from Anaheim in February for Danton Heinen to add some bite to the Bruins lineup for teams like the Capitals and Lightning. He is a big strong body that can really be a factor in the physical game, but also has the ability to chip in on the score sheet. Unfortunately, the Bruins got a very small sample size (10 games) and his play was less than stellar in his two games vs. the Hurricanes. This Lightning may be a more suitable matchup for his skill set as they have some big bodies on the other side who are less fleet of foot. He will need to step up his game in a big way, using size and intimidation without taking foolish penalties if he hopes to remain in the lineup.
#9) Bruce Cassidy: Surely you could put the coach higher up on the list, but at the end of the day this is the playoffs and the team really has to be ready now. All the work they put in during the year comes to fruition now. He will need to recognize (like he did in the Carolina series) if certain players are not working (Ritchie, Studnicka, Bjork, Clifton etc) and make moves based on what he sees in practice and in team chemistry. He has been outstanding at this, along with line matchups, since becoming the Bruins head coach in 2016.
#8) Handling the Back-to-Back Games: There could be two sets of back-to-back games in this series (games 2 and 3, and games 6 and 7). It is no secret in the NHL that these situations puts an extra strain on your players physically and you typically will not have a practice to fix any mistakes from the game before. Add to that the Bruins backup goalie, Daniel Vladar, has not played an NHL game, and you have a deeper conundrum on watching Halak‘s workload.
#7) Pastrnak-Bergeron-Marchand: This line has been one of the top lines, if not the, top line in the game for a long time. The expectation for them to perform is high and they always seem to deliver. To win Marchand will need to be at his pesty best, without getting drawn into too much extra-curricular activity. Bergeron, well, he just needs to be Bergeron. Pastrnak has not played a lot of hockey since the return, but has looked every bit the Rocket Richard (NHL goal scoring leader) winner he was this year. Long shifts in the Tampa O-zone will weigh heavy on their D, and that starts with this group.
#6) The 3rd Line/Charlie Coyle: I think this will be a much bigger key to the series than most realize. Charlie Coyle has been playing some incredible hockey in his almost David Krejci lite position. He has played with a number of different linemates since the return and that is not likely to change. He has also played on the top line and is really capable of playing almost anywhere. The 3rd line he centers, will no doubt feature at least Ritchie, Studnicka, Bjork, Kuraly, over the course of this series. They will carry some heavy minutes and will need to be at their defensive best against a deep Tampa team, as well as contribute on the score sheet.
#5) The 2nd Line/David Krejci: You could argue the 2nd line has been the Bruins best line since the return. Certainly the line playing the farthest above expectation. Jake DeBrusk found his form in the Hurricanes series and Ondrej Kase has fit in so well along side him and David Krejci. And Krejci himself has been one of the best in the whole playoffs, let alone on this Bruins team. He led the enitre NHL in Playoff scoring in 2011 and 2013..and “Playoff Krejci” has been back in a big way. With so much offence on Tampa (who also have a great 2nd line of Killhorn, Cirelli and Johnson) Krejci and this 2nd line being able to continue their outstanding play and taking the scoring burden off that top unit would be something the Bruins haven’t had in a long time.
#4) The 4th Line: The unsung heroes. The bangers. The grinders. These are the guys that can make and break a series and the Bruins 4th line has been dynamite since the NHL resumed. Chris Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom have been the mainstays, putting pucks in deep, cycling pucks, blocking shots. It is their job to bring their steel lunch pale each and every game and get to work. Whether they are centered by Sean Kuraly (likely for at least game 1) or Par Lindholm, the Bruins will need them to play high energy and hard hitting hockey every minute they are on the ice. With the potential of the two aforementioned back-to-back games, every minute counts. Tampa will have last change in the first two games, so they will need to make life tough in their matchups.
#3) D-Fence! D-Fence!: There is no secret, the Tampa Bay Lighting are amongst the best offensive teams in the league. Brayden Point has emerged as one of the top centers in the game, and having Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos on your flanks certainly helps. Even with Stamkos out, Ondrej Palat has been outstanding on this line, and it does not stop there. The Lightning are deep. The defense needs to be on point. This is a great group of pairings with Chara-McAvoy, Krug-Carlo, and Grzelcyk-Clifton/Lauzon. Their mistakes since the restart have been getting caught puck watching/chasing and not making smart first passes out of the zone. These mistakes will only be amplified against a Tampa team that feeds off of the mistakes. Get pucks out of the D-Zone and “live to fight another day” (as Coach Cassidy likes to say). It has the making of a long hard fought series and patience and smart decision making on the back-end is always paramount.
#2) The Power Play/Penalty Kill: The power play will be the 1B factor in this series we think. The Lightning are a) prone to talking penalties (2nd in NHL in penalty mins in the regular season) and b) they are average on the penalty kill (ranked 14th in the NHL). Couple that with the Bruins having the 2nd most potent power play (25.2%) and you can see where this is an area they need to capitalize on each and every chance they get. The Lightning are aware of this, but old habits die hard and a leopard can’t change it’s spots. On the other end Tampa Bay had the 5th best PP (23.2%). Good news for the B’s is they own the 3rd best PK in the league (84.2%). All signs point to the Bruins having an advantage in the special teams department, and that is great news. If…
#1) Jaroslav Halak: The 1B to Tuukka Rask‘s 1A. We all know how he got to be the Bruins starting goalie and their ship will only sail as far as Jaro steers it. He hasn’t lost since taking over the reigns (3-0) and his numbers have been good overall. It has not all been good, as we know. A gaff giveaway goal in his opening game, and a couple softies that pushed the Bruins into that miraculous game 4 3rd period. He’ll need to be sharper against this Lightning team, obviously as they will expose a goalie who is not on top of his game. He is a solid, veteran goalie with a great team in front of him and he needs to cease this opportunity as his time to shine. Make the big save when needed. make the easy ones look easy. And steal a game if a game needs to be stolen. Full on Halak Attack mode!
Sooooo looking forward to this series and game 1 tonight. Get your popcorn ready Bruins fans!