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Phil Esposito recalls how much he enjoyed playing for the Bruins, how much he appreciated the way the people of Boston embraced him and how he loved going to the Italian restaurants and delis in the city's north end.

But when it comes to the Eastern Conference final between the Bruins, for whom he starred from 1967-75, and the Lightning, the team he founded, well, it's no contest.

"Not in the slightest," Esposito said Wednesday. "I've been gone from Boston since 1975. Yes, I had my greatest career years there and loved playing there, but those days are over. I'm a Lightning guy. I gave birth to this thing."

Esposito scored 459 of the 717 goals in his Hall of Fame career for the Bruins, including a then-record 76 in 1970-71. He also won Stanley Cup titles in 1970 and '72.

He said he even turned down a $1 million signing bonus from the Vancouver Blazers of the old World Hockey Association to stay with Boston, which then traded him to the Rangers 12 games into the 1975-76 season.

But Esposito said establishing the Lightning, in its first conference final since its 2004 Stanley Cup run, gives him the most satisfaction. And the Lightning, he said, reminds him of some of his old Bruins teams.

"When I watch this team play, they care for each other," said Esposito, Tampa Bay's vice president for corporate relations and in his 11th season as the team's radio analyst. "I don't know about the social part, and who cares. When they're on the ice, they're together. Nothing else matters."

Esposito declined to predict how the series will go other than it will take six or seven games. He said the X factors are the Lightning power play and Bruins D Zdeno Chara, one of the league's best.

"Who the hell is (Chara) going to play?" Esposito said. "Is he going to play against Vinny(Lecavalier) or (Steven) Stamkos? If he plays against Vinny, that should give Stamkos more room."

ON THE DRAW: Bruins C Patrice Bergeron plays in all situations, but losing him to a concussion will hurt Boston most in the faceoff circle.

Bergeron leads the playoffs among players with more than 200 draws with a 64.2 winning percentage.

"It's going to be up to the other centermen to really buckle down," coach Claude Julien said. "Having said that, in order to win faceoffs, you need everybody in there. You can create a battle with your centermen and the loose puck, and it's up to the other guys to make sure they win the battles. So that's going to be up to everybody here to step in and to really do a better job until we get Patrice back."

COUNTING THE MINUTES: Lightning D Eric Brewer's average ice time in the playoffs is 26:09, four minutes more than any other Tampa Bay defenseman and about four minutes more than he played for the Lightning during the regular season. Don't look for coach Guy Boucher to start backing off Brewer's minutes now.

"This is the time of the year when it's time to win,'' Boucher said. "And if he's one of your top horses, it's time to let him run. He's going to be a major part of this series, as he was in the last (a sweep of the Capitals).''

Boucher said certain game situations could allow Brewer to play fewer minutes. For example, when the Lightning blew out the Penguins 8-2 in Game 5 of the first round, Brewer played just under 22 minutes. If the games are close, however, look for Brewer to continue pushing 26 minutes.

"You just have to be aware of line changes and lengths of your shifts, and the coaches help monitor that,'' Brewer said. "It's just a matter of being aware, but in the end, you just do it. It's what you have to do.''

Times staff writer Tom Jones contributed to this report.