Dwayne Roloson leads all NHL goalies in save percentage and goals against average in the playoffs. (photo courtesy of puckinghockey.com)

Scouting Tampa Bay: Eastern Conference Finals Preview

Daid Krejci knows the Bruins need to be smart with the puck. (Photo curtesy of steffeniben.blogyd.com)

It’s been a long, long wait, but the Eastern Conference finals will finally start tonight, as Tampa Bay invades TD Garden for Game 1. It should be a dynamite series, as Tampa’s quick stars go up against the tight-checking, physical Bruins and likely Vezina-winner Tim Thomas.

The two teams met four times in the regular season, with Boston winning three. Two of those, however, were decided late in the game and only one was against current Tampa goalie, Dwayne Roloson.

The series will be more like the series against Montreal than the one against Philadelphia, as the Lightning has small, speedy forwards and play a 1-3-1 trapping system that looks to create turnovers in the neutral zone. This is how Tampa rolled Washington, as the Capitals turned the puck over numerous times in the neutral zone, many of which ended up in the back of the net on the counter-attack.

“They play their system well, and they are patient and wait for mistakes,” Boston center David Krejci said. “We have to make good choices and protect the puck. Get it in deep and make plays down low.”

If the Bruins can do that, they should handle the Lightning, with or without Patrice Bergeron. However, the B’s struggled in the neutral zone and with decision-making at both blue lines, which led to numerous 2-on-1 chances in all seven games against Montreal, and in Game 2 against the Flyers. However, they played much better in Games 3 and 4, and one would believe Claude Julien has been stressing play in those areas over the last week.

Scouting Tampa Bay

Forwards

The two teams are about as different as it can get. Tampa has an explosive attack with two excellent scoring lines and a third line that has come alive in the playoffs. The first line features a legitimate sniper in Steven Stamkos, a great playmaker in Hart Trophy candidate Martin St. Louis, and an all-around player and grinder in Ryan Malone. Stamkos finally seems to be over his playoff struggles (4 goals and 2 assists), while St. Louis leads the team with 6 goals and 7 assists.

Martin St. Louis is Tampa Bay's leading playtoff scorer. (Photo courtesy mjbsportsnetwork.com)

The second line has Stanley Cup winner Vincent Lacavalier centering Teddy Purcell and Bruin-killer Simon Gagne, who returns after missing three games with a head injury. Lecavalier led the Bolts to a Cup in 2004 and has 5 goals and 7 assists and is a plus-4 in this year’s playoffs, while Purcell has 1-10-11 totals. And we all remember Gagne killing the Bruins while with the Flyers last season.

The third line consists of three hard-nosed players in agitator Dominic Moore, agitator Steve Downie and playoff hero Sean Bergenheim, who has seven goals in the playoffs. Downie, a renowned pest, has also been fantastic, with 2 goals and 10 assists. Moore is best known in Boston for taking a dive in the March 3 game, which drew the ire of both Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic.

Like Boston’s fourth line, Tampa’s energy line of Nate Thompson, Blair Jones, and Adam Hall have done their job in limited ice time.

The Lightning has an edge in this department, especially with Bergeron out. Tyler Seguin has struggled protecting the puck – one of the reasons he hasn’t played in the playoffs prior to tonight – so his play and decision-making in the neutral zone and around the blue lines will be something to keep an eye on – especially tonight.

Defense

Eric Brewer's acquisition has made the Bolts Cup contenders. (Photo courtesy of lightningwatch.com)

Tampa was awful defensively for most of the season, but has buckled down over the past two months. The acquisition of Eric Brewer from St. Louis in mid-February was a key move, as TB went 22-6-2-3 (Dwayne Roloson has something to do with this as well). The veteran defenseman has improved an average blue line and turned Tampa’s penalty kill into one of the best (it’s actually statistically the best of the remaining four teams). He has been averaging 26:09 on-ice per game, and leads the Lightning with 43 blocked shots and 32 hits in the playoffs.

As his defensive partner, Mattias Ohlund has benefitted the most from Brewer’s acquisition, while Victor Hedmen has yet to live up to the billing of being the  N0. 2 overall pick two years ago. The rest of the D – Brett Clark, Mike Lundin, and Marc-Andre Bergeron – are nothing special, just serviceable defensemen.

There’s a huge edge for the Bruins in this area.

Goaltending

At first glance, many Boston fans automatically give the edge to Thomas, but not so fast. Like Thomas, Dwayne Roloson has been overlooked and underappreciated for much of his career.

Roloson leads the NHL in save percentage (.941 to Thomas’ .937) and goals against average (2.01 to Thomas’ 2.03). The 41-year-old has done in the playoffs before, leading Edmonton to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006.

An interesting little side note to these two is that Thomas almost went to UMass-Lowell, but decided on Vermont as Roloson returned for his senior season so he wouldn’t have to redshirt. Thomas played with St. Louis with the Catamounts.

Thomas and Roloson will likely wash each other out.

Special Teams

The Lightning has been parading in and out of the penalty box throughout the playoffs (54 shorthanded situations), but have only surrendered three goals. Now the PK unit is facing the worst power play in the playoffs, as Boston is a dreadful 2-for-37.

Tampa’s power play is scoring at a 26.7 percent rate (12-for-45), and Boston is only killing at an 80.5 percent clip (33-for-43), though the unit has had big kills at key moments in games.

Clear edge to Tampa Bay.

Coaching

Claude Julie has done everything right in these playoffs, and finally got over the hump by getting past the second round. He has made some great in-game moves, especially against Montreal, and his team always plays with poise and determination.

Guy Boucher may be a rookie coach, but he has done a great job, as evidenced by his nomination for the Jack Adams Award. His 1-3-1 system helped make up for the fact that Tampa was weak defensively for most of the year, and the system is working great in the postseason.

A slight edge to Julien.

Intangibles

Tampa battled back from a 3-1 deficit to Pittsburgh in the opening round, so they can play under pressure. They also have two great leaders in Lecavalier and St. Louis. Boston has proven it can play well when it gets tough, and Patrice Bergeron skated Saturdya morning, which is a great sign.

No edge.

Prediction

In what will be a fantastic series with lots of action and great goaltending, Boston wins in 6. I think Boston’s advantage with its defensive corps is the difference, and I don’t believe Tampa’s third-line can continue playing like it has. The Bruins do need to play well in the neutral zone, and if they struggle there, Tampa will win the series.

 

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Tags: Boston Bruins David Krejci Dominic Moore Dwayne Roloson Eastern Conference Finals Eric Brwewer Martin St. Louis Patrice Bergeron Ryan Malone Sean Bergeheim Simon Gagne Steve Downie Steven Stamkos Tampa Bay Lightning Teddy Purcell Tim Thomas Vincent Lecavalier

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