By Joe Haggerty
WILMINGTON, Mass. – Strange days are here indeed for both the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning as they wait for the Western Conference to determine its finalists.
With victories from both the Predators and Wings over the weekend, the Boston/Tampa Bay series continues to get pushed back. Now it looks like things might not be getting started before Saturday at TD Garden.
But that hasn’t stopped the Bruins coaching staff from working on their scouting reports and readying game plans as the B’s players plan to get moving with a Monday morning practice after enjoying a weekend off.
In strengths, weaknesses and style of play, the Lightning are a more explosive, slightly more disciplined version of the Montreal Canadiens, though they might not flop quite so much as P.K. Subban and the Montreal Diving Club.
The Bolts are also, however, a softer defensive unit that relies on a trendy trap over physical toughness, size and grit around the net when it comes to their defense corps.
Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher is credited with bringing a very innovative version of the 1-3-1 trap to the Lightning, but Bruins coach Claude Julien said the Lightning have different versions of the trap that they use to spring their golden offensive trio of Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos.
Given that the Bruins had their hands full with Montreal in a seven-game series that featured some great individual performances from the now-injured Patrice Bergeron, it looks like it will be a competitive matchup between Boston and Tampa Bay once things finally do get going.
A healthy Bergeron would have given the Bruins an edge in the series, but now they head into the seven-game showdown as slight underdogs.
“[The Lightning] are very good at taking care of the neutral zone and they make it hard to penetrate. They are also a team that throws a lot of pucks towards the net,” said Julien. “Montreal did that also. Whether it was from behind the net or from the corners or tough angles, they threw it at the net and they always had someone going there. There are a lot of similarities when it comes to that.
“Defensively, they are a team that will collapse, overload and there are similarities [with Montreal]. They also have that skill level. So I think there are some of those things that are similarities with Montreal. But they still have their unique style and their coach has certain things he like to see from his hockey club that differs from the Montreal coaching staff.”
Big defenseman Pavel Kubina and forward Simon Gagne are injured and weren’t with the rest of their Lightning teammates during a Sunday practice. Both took shots to the head in Game 1 of their sweep over the Capitals and haven’t played since; they're listed with "upper-body injuries". Based on the comments coming out of Tampa, Gagne is close to returning while Kubina might not be ready to go at the outset of the series.
The Bolts lost three of four to the Bruins during the regular season, but are a little different now. The first three meetings between the B's and Tampa Bay came before Jan. 1, when the Lightning acquired Dwayne Roloson and solved their goaltending problems. (Roloson didn't play in the post-Jan. 1 game between the teams, a 2-1 Boston victory at TD Garden on March 3.) Also, Lecavalier was injured for a large chunk of games in the middle of the season.
Meltdowns like the ones authored by goalies Mike Smith and Dan Ellis early in the season aren’t going to happen with Roloson in net.
Boucher noted the similarities between the teams in these playoffs -- both fell behind 0-2 in the first round (Boston against Montreal, Tampa Bay against Pittsburgh) but rallied to win in seven games; both swept in the second round (the B's against Philadelphia, the Lightning against Washington) -- and also pointed out that they finished the regular season with identical 46-25-11 records.
“There are a lot of things that are pretty similar,” he said.
“We’re expecting them to be who they are and nothing less. Once you’re down to the Final Four and you’re hoping for any little break [in an opponent], then you’re sadly mistaken.”
Boucher repeatedly called Tim Thomas “an enigma” during his comments to reporters after Sunday’s practice, and pointed to the B’s goalie as the biggest potential difference-maker in the series.
That might a first for Thomas, but that might also be Boucher's way of motivating Roloson.
In any case, it's all just words . . . but that's all we're going to have until the puck finally drops at an undetermined point later this week.