May 14, 2011, 7:00 PM EST
With the start of the conference finals tonight, the waiting and anticipation is over with and the talk and analyzing of the teams and players before they hit the ice can end. There is just one more piece of business to attend to here though: The predictions.
With the way these two teams are set up we could be in for a classic, yet potentially defensive-minded, series. You’ve got the two best goalies statistically remaining in the playoffs in Tim Thomas and Dwayne Roloson, a crushing defense from Boston highlighted by Zdeno Chara, and a skilled offense from Tampa Bay featuring the likes of Martin St. Louis, Steve Stamkos, and Vincent Lecavalier.
With all that said, it’s time for us to put up or shut up.
The striking thing about this series is that both teams followed such similar paths to this destination. Each squad faced two-game deficits in the first round (Boston was down 2-0, Tampa Bay fought back from 3-1) against scrappy but over-matched teams then proceeded to sweep talented but messy squads in Round 2. Both teams can bore you to tears with their conservative defensive systems yet heighten your senses with their elderly goalies, whether it be 41-year-old wonder Dwayne Roloson or 37-year-old highlight reel Tim Thomas.
The prospect of the Bruins dealing with Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier without the benefit of Patrice Bergeron‘s criminally underrated two-way game is a bit stomach-churning. Then again, the Tampa Bay offense hasn’t seen the likes of Zdeno Chara in the playoffs yet, either. Boston doesn’t have the high-end firepower of the Washington Capitals, but they sport what could be a troubling (if diluted) mixture of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ doggedness and the Capitals’ finishing ability. (At least when you consider the Lightning defense, an area of serious – if unexploited – concern.)
The Lightning haven been considerably more productive on special teams, but the Bruins are an absolute bear in 5-on-5 situations. During the regular season, the Bruins scored the third most goals in the East while allowing the fewest, producing a conference-best +51 goal differential to Tampa Bay’s +7. When in doubt, those big picture numbers help me split hairs, especially since Boston took the teams’ season series 3-1 (outscoring them 15-8).
I could very well see the Bolts winning this series, but I cannot shake the feeling that they are this year’s answer to the 2010 Montreal Canadiens while the Bruins are – humorously enough – this year’s 2010 Philadelphia Flyers. My guess is that the forces of puck luck will be stomped out by the big, bad bearers of reality in this series.
Boston wins it in 6.
This series has the high potential to be a defensive stand-off with coaches Claude Julien and Guy Boucher both stressing the finer points of tough strategy. That could mean we end up getting bored to death by how these teams decide to go at it though. That wouldn’t be too fun. Thankfully both of these teams know how to push the pace of the game when needed. For Tampa Bay that means taking advantage of the power play and making opponents pay for reckless play. For Boston, it means hemming the other team into their own end and pounding away with both shots and the body to open up space.
Tampa Bay is loaded with character guys who are melding together into something like Voltron that when they’re all together working as a unit they’re nearly unbeatable. Boston, however, is the robotic beast they didn’t want to run into. Boston’s playing too tough and Tim Thomas will be the difference maker in this series.
I like Boston here and in cardiac fashion.
Bruins in 7.
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