Kukla's Korner

Opposing Viewpoints: A Final Look Back at the Boston/Tampa Bay Eastern Conference Final

To put a wrap on a thrilling Eastern Conference Final series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins, Matt Kalman of TheBruinsBlog.net joins me one last time for our collaborative reflections on what went right for the Bruins, wrong for the Lightning and a little in between.

***

JJ: Well, Matt, that was some series. It had a little bit of everything, as we seemed to state with each passing game in our Q&As. Before we get cookin’ here, even in what amounts to a losing effort on my side (I left it all on the ice, personally, by the way – don’t know if you noticed), it was a pleasure working with you and I think we did readers at both sites justice in pestering them with our relentless, um, charm. Yeah.

MK: First off, Jon, I want to congratulate myself for predicting the Bruins in 7. I also had Bruins in 7 against Montreal, so if you ignore that I had Philadelphia in 6, I’m on a pretty good roll this postseason.

JJ: Yeah, yeah. I can ignore the Philly bit, if you insist. But let’s not get crazy here, Nostradamus. I had the Lightning in 7 and was a bounce here, a break there (or a sliver of consistency in NHL supplementary discipline, perhaps) away from being the one throwing a parade for myself. Congrats indeed and good luck repeating your performance in the Cup Final, now on to breaking down one hell of a series between Boston and Tampa Bay.

Now then, let’s dig a little deeper into how we thought this thing would go from the start and see how right we actually were:

MK: It’s funny to look back at the pre-series predictions we made and read our comments in retrospect. Obviously, we saw how important Patrice Bergeron really was and how great Tim Thomas could be, even in light of some net-crashing by Tampa Bay. That the Bruins top four on D played its best when the chips were down was something else I wrote about heading into this series.

Here’s the one quote that stood out for me from my portion of our combined preview:

“Now along come the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite their statements to the contrary, I could see the Bruins taking the fifth-seeded Lightning a little lightly at the outset of the series. That’s just their nature. But unlike recently Julien-coached Bruins squads, this edition seems better at refocusing when the going gets tough. This year’s players seem to really trust each other and the system the way championship teams typically do.”

Surprisingly, the Bruins didn’t really take the Lightning that lightly, except maybe when up 3-0 in Game 4. That game, even with the Bruins winning the series, was a turning point that pushed this thing to seven games. I don’t think until that game that the Lightning believed in themselves enough to nearly upset the Bruins.

But the second part of my quote is what stands out. We saw just how well the Bruins could re-focus both game to game and within a game. They came back from blowing that 3-0 lead to win an ugly Game 5. And then after the disastrous defensive display in Game 6, they pitch a shutout in Game 7. When the first line looked like it wouldn’t do a thing, it erupted. When Tomas Kaberle and Johnny Boychuk looked like they’d run the Bruins into the ground, they rebounded. Even Thomas had to restart from zero a couple times after some uncharacteristic performances. This series was a textbook example of how Claude Julien’s Bruins are great at turning the page and only focusing on the future.

JJ: That’s actually a strong suit for the Lightning as well. Unfortunately for them, they’ll have to employ that mindset to a disappointing end to the season now as well and start anew next year. Now, as I look back on how I thought this series would go down, here’s what stands out to me:

“…the Bruins are a different animal. They have every bit of the gusto that the Lightning do. They’re fantastically talented and have scoring depth. They get excellent goaltending. They are once again big and bad, as their ancestors from years ago were when making that a Beantown trademark.

But the special teams stick out to me here, especially if Bergeron is lost for any significant time. Strike that, actually, because as we all know, even a single game in the postseason counts as significant time and can be all the momentum swing a series needs.”

Well, Bergeron coming back for Game 3 was obviously a big lift for Boston and special teams did play a major factor, especially in Game 6, when the Lightning connected three times on the power play to help them force a Game 7.

But I have to bring this up here because I know so many are thinking it in retrospect. Just how much did a penalty-free Game 7 help the Bruins? It certainly played to their strengths, I’d say and the Lightning, looking every bit like the team that beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0 in Game 7 of the first round, just couldn’t get anything past Thomas and the Boston defense to repeat history there.

Just how does a penalty-free game present itself anyway, out of nowhere, in a series that averaged almost eight combined power plays in the previous six games? Hmmm…

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the offseason barbeque that Colin Campbell and Stephen Walkom are sure to attend together…

Conspiracy assertions aside (cause that ain’t me, babe. No, no, no…) The Bruins deserve to be where they are. They prevailed in seven games over a very formidable Lightning bunch and you can’t take any credit away from them whatsoever.

So, how’d they do it?

MK: What went right for the Bruins?

Well, what went right in Game 7 was that everyone bought in like few teams in a winner-take-all game have ever done. You didn’t see one player stray from the system the whole night. Thomas was the back bone and everyone played their role. And then Nathan Horton scored. The Bruins are now 8-0 when he scores in the postseason. So Vancouver might want to assign three guys to defend him.

Over the course of the series, the Bruins’ formula prevailed, even in that wild Game 2 6-5 win. Thomas made some ridiculous saves on odd-man rushes in that game to make sure it didn’t turn into his worst performance (that came in Game 6). The first line scored some huge goals and except for Game 6 the penalty kill was outstanding enough to overcome the dismal power play.

Of course, the last thing to go right in Game 7 was something the Bruins couldn’t control completely – the lack of whistles. Without a power play either way, it was left to the best 5-on-5 team in the league to take care of business, and the Bruins did.

JJ: Indeed. Again, I still find it amazing how such a drastically different game, in terms of the lack of penalties versus the way things were called the rest of the series, suddenly presents itself in a do-or-die situation, benefitting the home team. Okay, enough of that.

Again, the B’s did enough to win the series and the Lightning fell short. So where did they go wrong? Too many defensive breakdowns stick out more than anything to me. In the games the Lightning fell, a majority of Boston’s scoring plays were created on mistakes by Lightning defensemen – and then there was Game 2, which was just a slopfest through and through.

Game 3 featured the mix-up between Brett Clark, Victor Hedman, the rest of the Bolts on the ice and an assist from a referee pick in the corner that led to David Krejci being completely alone in front of a helpless Dwayne Roloson. In a 2-0 game, that stood as the deciding factor.

Both goals of the non-empty net variety in Game 5 came off of long, cross-ice passes through clean lanes and one or the other (and maybe both) probably should have been broken up.

And, in Game 7, Andrew Ference made a masterful pass through the neutral zone that eventually led to Horton’s game-winner. It was a gem of a breakout that busted Tampa’s 1-3-1. Not a lot to hang heads on in that one, but a breakdown nonetheless.

A few things one way or another and this series tilts in Tampa’s favor (and I’m going to Vancouver instead of you!) So what almost sent the Bruins packing?

MK: As for things that nearly killed the Bruins, the power play is – no shock here – No.1, 2 and 3. They tried different alignments and different personnel and couldn’t come up with a winning combination. Worse, the Lightning really took a lot of momentum from those kills (see second period, Game 4) and so being shorthanded was almost one of the Lightning’s best weapons.

The Bruins also lost a little of their characteristic discipline over the course of the series. Horton famously took some penalties on the ice and then had his fan incident. Luckily the penalty-killers did their job for the most part and the league realized that costing a team a Game 7 over a little water squirt wouldn’t be prudent. I wish David Stern had had the same sense about his damn rule about leaving the bench in Game 7 in 1997. But that’s a whole other story.

JJ: Was that a basketball reference? Barf. Well, at least you didn’t write “whole ‘nother’ story”, a major pet peeve of mine. (But why should I expect as much from such an accomplished writer as yourself? I shouldn’t. Maybe that’s just a reflection of my lack of faith in society’s ability to communicate, in general.) Anyway…

The flip side of what almost ruined the Bruins is what almost lifted the Lightning and, in looking back, I can’t help but think that, if Thomas were any less superhuman, Steve Downie would have scored in Game 5 – you know, “The Save” – and then who knows how that one ends up.

Or if there was any hint of defense in Game 2…

Or had there been any penalties to speak of in Game 7, of course. That Lightning power play was so clutch throughout the postseason. But you can’t rely on that too heavily, obviously.

That the Lightning’s series loss, it can be argued, came down to a series of individual events like this shows just how closely these teams were matched. That may seem like overstating the obvious in a series that goes seven games but it’s worth reminding. Like I said early on, a couple of breaks that go the other way here or there and I’m the one not sleeping at all for the next week to ten days, with the Bolts going back and forth to and from Vancouver.

Instead, it’s Boston taking on the Canucks and an epic goaltending matchup in Thomas against Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo. I’m on record as not being a Luongo guy, so I’ll give the Bruins the all-important edge in net. But I leave the Eastern Conference Final behind still believing Boston to be a team teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown and if they give the Canucks ample opportunity with the man advantage, the Sedins and company will put a hurtin’ on ‘em, much like Tampa Bay did. There’s a ton of skill on Vancouver’s side, so the Boston blueline will have to hold up. Against the Lightning, they did just enough. In the Cup Final, they’ll have to do far more.

They have their work cut out but I was impressed with the Bruins, overall. You can’t say enough about Thomas and the team in front of him is as feisty as ever, only they can match that trademark aggression with some serious talent. Bergeron means the world to the B’s as well, Krejci was huge for them and Zdeno Chara is a force at both ends. I may be in the minority – so far, looks like I am – but I see a long route to the Cup for whichever team prevails, with special teams standing out as a key again. (Better get sharpened up there, then, Boston!)

What’s your lasting impression of the Bolts, Matt?

MK: How can you not be impressed with the team’s depth, leadership and talent? Even on the back end, which I’m sure the Lightning will tune up in the offseason, guys mostly stuck to the structure that obviously played to their strengths. Even your friend Marc-Andre Bergeron was solid in Game 7. If Sean Bergenheim doesn’t get hurt or Pavel Kubina makes a comeback, maybe we’re talking about a different outcome. It’ll be interesting to see how the Lightning handle their goaltending situation and whether they retain Bergenheim’s services, but as our Canadian colleagues never hesitate to remind us, Stevie Y is a genius. So you combine that with Dr. Boucher and you have the makings of a consistent winner and contender. You also have the birth of a new rivalry between Boston and Tampa, which assuming much of the personnel stays the same, should make for some fun regular-season games next year.

Jon, in conclusion, I want to thank you for a great series and some great exposure for TheBruinsBlog.net through Kukla’s Korner. It was great to meet you and get to know you a little bit down in Tampa and fun to hear and read your insights on both squads. I’m sure we’ll cross paths again at some point in the near future.

JJ: Likewise, amigo. Like you said, let’s hope this Boston/Tampa thing does grow into something. If nothing else, it’ll give us the opportunity to revisit some of the barbs tossed this past week. This collabo has been my pleasure and all the best to you and to the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final.

***

A quick thanks to all the readers at KK for a great first season here for me. It’s been very rewarding to join such an intelligent community of writers and fans and I’m proud to be associated.

I don’t exactly go into hibernation in the summer or anything but I’ll probably take a few days for myself here before posting again.

Big things planned down the road.

Cheers, gang.

JJ
jj@kuklaskorner.com
JJ on Twitter

Filed in: Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, | Beasts of the Southeast | Permalink
 

Comments

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Cool questions-answers. Continue add post in such style

Posted by Desmoond on 05/29/11 at 12:10 PM ET

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All respect is due to the lightning, a great team with a bright future. Now I hope the B’s go on and win it!

Posted by jak03 on 05/29/11 at 09:16 PM ET

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