St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones breaks down the Eastern Conference final between the Lightning and Bruins.
LIGHTNING: After finishing seventh in the NHL in scoring during the regular season, the Lightning leads the playoffs in goals with 38. Sure, its stars are scoring — Marty St. Louis has six goals, Vinny Lecavalier has five and Steven Stamkos has four — but the so-called role players have lit the lamp, too. Sean Bergenheim, who had 14 goals during the regular season, leads the Lightning with seven in the playoffs. He also leads the team with 36 shots on goal. Meantime, Steve Downie and Teddy Purcell are tied for the team lead in assists with 10. In all, 14 players have scored in the Lightning's 11 postseason games, and nine have at least two goals. That includes Simon Gagne, who is expected to return after suffering a head injury in Game 1 of the last series against the Capitals. Gagne, who has two goals and five assists in the playoffs, was playing some of his best hockey of the season when he went down. The Lightning also is encouraged by the play of Stamkos. After struggling to score for much of the second half of the season and the first four games of the playoffs, Stamkos has rebounded with four goals in the past seven games. Keep an eye on Lecavalier in this series. He has 46 points, including 19 goals, in 45 career games against Boston.
BRUINS: The Bruins, fifth in the NHL in scoring during the regular season, have scored just one fewer goal than the Lightning in the playoffs and, like the Lightning, are getting contributions from practically everyone. In 11 games, 15 players have combined for 37 goals. Then again, the Bruins just finished playing a Flyers team that had serious goalie problems. Brad Marchand, Nathan Horton and David Krejci lead the team with five goals each. Krejci and Milan Lucic tied for the team lead in points during the regular season with 62. Lucic had a team-high 30 goals, but he has only two goals and three assists in the playoffs. The Bruins will start the series without their top playoff scorer. Center Patrice Bergeron, who had 12 points in the first two rounds, suffered a concussion in the last series against Philadelphia. That means 19-year-old rookie Tyler Seguin, the second overall pick in last year's draft, will see his first playoff action after being a healthy scratch for all 11 of Boston's postseason games. He had 11 goals and 11 assists in 76 regular-season games. Look for Chris Kelly, who has four playoff goals, to take Bergeron's spot on a line with Marchand and former Lightning left wing Mark Recchi.
LIGHTNING: The Lightning's 1-3-1 defensive system has been the talk of the playoffs. The Lightning hasn't given up more than three goals in a playoff game. And if you go back to the regular season, the Lightning has allowed more than three goals in a game only once in the past 19 games. Oddly enough, the Lightning is giving up an average of 35.5 shots per game, third-worst in the playoffs. That indicates two things: Many of the shots are coming from the outside, and the Lightning is getting excellent goaltending from Dwayne Roloson. In addition, the Lightning's shot-blocking has been outstanding. The defense has been led by midseason acquisition Eric Brewer, who has established himself as the team's No. 1 defenseman by averaging more than 26 minutes per game in the playoffs. Second-year blue liner Victor Hedman appears to have taken his game to the next level. He is second on the team in minutes (21:59 per game). On the downside, it looks as if the Lightning will start the series without Pavel Kubina, who sustained an apparent head injury in Game 1 of the Washington series. The Lightning will miss Kubina's size (6 feet 4, 258 pounds), especially against the big, physical Bruins.
BRUINS: The Bruins allowed the second-fewest goals in the NHL this season, an average of 2.3 per game. The Lightning and Bruins have given up exactly 24 goals in 11 playoff games each. Boston's defense is led by Zdeno Chara, the 6-foot-9 monster whom many believe is the best all-around defenseman in the NHL. He hasn't contributed much offensively in the playoffs with only two goals and two assists. He missed a game in the first round against Montreal with dehydration but appears to be well on the road to full strength again. He leads the postseason in plus-minus at plus-11 while generally playing upward of 27 minutes a game. He also has 24 hits and 17 blocked shots in the playoffs. Because of Chara's oversized frame, the Bruins have one of the biggest defenses in the NHL; the average size is 6-3, 215 pounds. Chara, however, isn't the only key contributor on the blue line. Dennis Seidenberg is plus-8 in the playoffs, and veteran former Maple Leaf Tomas Kaberle is plus-5. Many hockey people rank the Bruins' defense the best in the NHL.
LIGHTNING: The Lightning is in the Eastern Conference final because of its special teams. The power play is 12-for-45 with the man advantage, a 26.7 conversion percentage. The Lightning's 12 power-play goals are the most in the playoffs, and its conversion rate is the best of the teams still alive. Meantime, the Lightning's penalty-killing unit has been more impressive, killing off 51 of its opponents' 54 power plays. That would be the best in the playoffs if not for Montreal, which didn't allow a power-play goal in 21 short-handed situations while being eliminated in the first round. Montreal's first-round opponent was Boston.
BRUINS: As we just mentioned, the Bruins' power play was nonexistent against Montreal in the first round, failing to convert on all 21 of its chances. The second round against Philadelphia didn't get much better. The Bruins scored on just two of 16 chances. Their penalty killing has been no great shakes, either. Boston has allowed eight goals in 41 short-handed situations for a rather pedestrian 80.5 penalty-kill rate. None of this should come as a surprise. Boston's power play during the regular season was ranked 20th overall, and the penalty-killers were ranked 16th. Based on all this, the Lightning might have a major edge in special teams.
LIGHTNING: If you didn't know Guy Boucher was a rookie head coach, you certainly wouldn't know it by watching the playoffs. His cool, calm demeanor and spot-on strategy might be the key reasons the Lightning is in the conference final for the second time. He stuck with his structure and kept his team full of confidence in the first round against the Penguins despite falling behind 3-1 in the series. Since then, the Lightning has reeled off seven consecutive victories and appears just as comfortable playing on the road as at home. Even on the road Boucher seems to get the matchups he is looking for while seemingly never taxing his players.
BRUINS: Claude Julien is one of the better and more experienced coaches in the game. He previously took the Canadiens and Devils to the playoffs. Then again, his teams have struggled in the postseason. In four previous trips to the playoffs, Julien failed to get out of the second round, including 2004, when his Canadiens were eliminated by the eventual-champion Lightning in the second round. He also coached last year's Bruins, who became the third team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead when it lost to the Flyers in the second round. Then again, this is clearly the best team he has coached. Julien managed to keep the Bruins together during a tougher-than-expected seven-game series against Montreal and pulled all the right strings in Boston's four-game sweep of Philadelphia.
LIGHTNING: Though the Lightning is the fifth seed and the Bruins are third, the teams had identical 46-25-11 records during the regular season. Both teams also went to seven games in the first round and swept their opponents in the second round. The Lightning comes into the series with a seasonlong seven-game winning streak, and it has a little more Cup-winning experience, with Vinny Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Pavel Kubina having played major roles on the 2004 Cup-champion Lightning.
BRUINS: The Bruins have dominated the Lightning over the years, especially in Boston. The Bruins have 25 wins, four losses and six ties all time at home against the Lightning. They won the regular-season series this year, winning three of the four meetings, including both in Boston by a combined score of 10-2. But though the Bruins are an Original Six team and considered one of hockey's great organizations, you have to go back to the prime playing days of Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr to find the last time the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. That was 1972. They haven't even reached the Cup final since 1990 and are playing in their first conference final since 1992.