The Boston Bruins will square-off with the Tampa Bay Lightning, the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, starting Saturday, April 28th.
The Lightning had the most potent offense in the league as they led the league in goals with 290. They had the most overall wins in the league and were only four points behind the Nashville Predators who won the Presidents’ Trophy for being the best team in the league.
The Lightning, like their name suggests, are quick and scary with all aspects of their game and can be a nightmare to play against. The one-two combo of forwards Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are as lethal as it gets and compiled a whopping 186 points between the two of them during the regular season.
One area that they do struggle in is the penalty-kill as they boasted the 4th worst PK% in the NHL at a measly 76.1%.
The Lightning made quick work of the New Jersey Devils in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by outscoring them 18-12 and securing a series victory in the fifth game.
The Bruins, on the other hand, staved off a miniature series collapse against the Toronto Maple Leafs and won a thrilling game seven to advance to the second round.
Boston is no slouch when comparing them to the Lightning: they ranked as a top six team in goals scored (6th – 267), goals allowed (6th – 211), power-play percentage (4th – 23.5%), and penalty-kill percentage (3rd – 83.7%).
Despite going to seven games, the Bruins put up a huge amount of goals against the Leafs (28) and were second among the playoff teams in goals scored with 4 goals/game.
This upcoming series between two of the East’s bests will be fun and entertaining for the whole family.
Players to Watch
David Krejci – The saying for the Bruins should be, “as David Krejci goes, so do the Bruins”. The reason for this is that the two years the Bruins have made the Stanley Cup Finals with Krejci, he had 20+ points in the playoffs. Krejci has performed OK in his career against the Lightning with 7 goals and 23 assists in 41 games. In the 2011 playoffs, Krejci had 7 points in the seven-game Eastern Conference finals against the Lightning, including a hat-trick in game six.
The Bruins will need Krejci to step up and produce if they hope to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
Jake DeBrusk – Ah, yes, the first-round boy wonder. This rookie has made a name for himself early in these playoffs by potting five goals and two assists against the Maple Leafs. DeBrusk is a gifted scorer, but he also is also a play-maker and can be the two-way player that the Bruins generally look for. Playing alongside, David Krejci DeBrusk has carried his weight so far during this run.
The real question is can DeBrusk keep his momentum riding further into the playoffs? The Lightning are a bigger team than the Leafs were and still bring a similar level of speed with their style-of-play. The Lightning only faced DeBrusk once during the regular season, so he is somewhat of a new face for them, but the 6’0, 188lb. DeBrusk will need to be at his best to keep up with the Lightning players.
Charlie McAvoy – McAvoy came into last year’s playoffs as a breath of fresh air for the Bruins with his ability to pass fluidly and create speed going up ice. He had been good for stretches during the regular season, but he injured himself near the end of the year and hasn’t looked as crisp as he usually has. This was evident in the Maple Leafs series with an abundance of turnovers and one-too-many times falling down over nothing but a clean sheet of ice.
The Bruins will need McAvoy to perform better against the deadlier offense that is the Tampa Bay Lightning if they have any hopes of making this series go the distance.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Nikita Kucherov – Like in my Bruins-Leafs preview, I have to highlight the biggest stud on each roster because they are simply to important to gloss over. Kucherov was a force this year, leading the Lightning in points with 100 (39G, 61A). So far during the playoffs, Kucherov has continued that trend with 10 points in 5 games against the Devils and is ahead of linemate Steven Stamkos by 4 points.
Against the Bruins in the past, Kucherov has earned 11 points in 17 games played with a +3 rating. This year, he was a little quieter against them with only 3 assists and a -2 rating in four games played. The Bruins will need to contain Kucherov to numbers like those as opposed to the ones we saw in the opening round so that they don’t get their doors blown off.
Victor Hedman – Hedman is without a doubt the Lightning’s best defenseman and his numbers show. He had his highest average time-on-ice in his career this year with 25:51 and also was 5th on the team in points with 63. He also sported a +32 rating which was the 6th best +/- in the league. He plays alongside two of the best players in the world in Kucherov and Steven Stamkos on the team’s top power-play, so his potent scoring skills become that much more noticeable.
Hedman has yet to record a point during these playoffs, however, I highly doubt he will have a bad series and will be a steadier and tougher challenge than the Leafs’ defensemen were against the Bruins.
Yanni Gourde – This was Gourde’s first full season in the NHL and he did not disappoint for the Lightning. Gourde finished the regular season 4th on the team in goals with 25 and has the potential to have multiple point nights, despite playing on the third line and second power-play unit. Gourde is a bit undersized at 5’9″, 172lb., but what he lacks in size, he makes up for with smart play and speed.
I think the surprising stat about Gourde is that he led his team in +/- rating with a +34, just ahead of his team’s number one defenseman Victor Hedman. Gourde only averages about 16 minutes of ice time/game, but he makes the most of his opportunities and has the potential to be the x-factor in the series (I also would accept J.T. Miller, but he seems a little more obvious).
The Goalie Matchup
Tuukka Rask and Andrei Vasilevskiy (holy crap, his name is a lot harder to spell than Frederik Andersen’s) were two of the top goaltenders this year. They both had rough stretches at some point (as most goalies do), except Tuukka’s happened at the beginning of the season and Vas’ (I’m going to use a nickname for him, if that’s cool with you guys?) was closer towards the end of the year.
Rask and the Bruins had the better of the Lightning during the regular season. Rask was 3-1 with a 2.00 GAA and .926 SV% while Vas was 1-3 with a 2.30 GAA and .928 SV%. Vas actually hasn’t performed terribly in the games against the Bruins and it will be interesting to see if he can improve those numbers just a bit to give his team the edge.
Rask has generally played well against the Lightning in his career, even though, of course, those teams are different from the one today. He is 16-7-1 in his career, although he only has a .908 SV% and 2.49 GAA, which is average at-best.
I do think that the Bruins have the edge in goaltending, although it is pretty close. I highlighted in the last series that Frederik Andersen had good career numbers against the Bruins, so I’d say any head-to-head stats I just mentioned, throw them out the window because this is the playoffs and Andersen just gave up 25+ goals in 7 games.
Who Will Win?
From top-to-bottom, the Lightning are a star-studded team and could probably win this series in 5 or 6 games if they play their best game. For some reason, though, the Bruins have played decent against them this year and I think can be a thorn in Tampa’s side if they continue their high-intensity play they had from their first series.
I won’t try and come up with a perfect stat that explains my reasoning, but instead go with my gut. I’d say this series goes six or seven games (so bold, I know) with the Bruins ultimately winning in the end.
The Final Prediction: Bruins in 6
All stats used for this article were found on the following sites:
NHL.com – Hockey-Reference.com – TheSportTank.com