The Florida Panthers were not a playoff team this year, but still may have a big impact on who ultimately skates for the Stanley Cup as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins battle in round two of the NHL playoffs.
The Panthers beat the Bruins in two of their last three games, including the season finale in Boston. Why is this significant now? If Boston held serve on the last day of the season, they would have landed the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Instead it belongs to the Lightning and if this series goes the distance, game seven will be at Amalie Arena in Tampa instead of TD Garden.
Boston’s game one beatdown in Tampa may lead one to believe it doesn’t matter, and in this millennium, the home teams in game sevens are a modest 42-35. However, Boston was 28-8-5 at home this season, while Tampa’s 29 wins were tied for the third-most home wins in the league. Certainly, there are no guarantees, but in the playoffs it is often a thin line between winning and losing and every edge counts.
As top seed, the Lightning disposed of the New Jersey Devils in five games, in what amounted to a glorified scrimmage (no disrespect to the Devils). Saving games in the early rounds helps teams stay fresh and healthy enough to fight through the rigors of a 16-win postseason. The Bruins, in the meantime, used a lot of energy chasing around the young, skilled and energetic Toronto Maple Leafs for seven games. The additional games and wear and tear may not factor into round two as much as it could in later rounds, so for this series, home ice aside, let’s assume the teams are on even footing and break it down from there.
Behind the bench, Jon Cooper is compiling an impressive career record in Tampa Bay. In five-plus seasons he has a 243-143-40 record and a 29-23 playoff mark that includes one trip to the Stanley Cup finals and another to the Eastern finals. This is the best team he is taking into the post season and their top seed is certainly warranted.
Bruce Cassidy of the Bruins had a twelve-year gap between his first head coaching assignment to when he took over the Bruins late last season. His original stint with the Capitals of Washington was mediocre (47-47-9), but his personal turnaround in Boston (68-27-13) is astounding and has the people in Beantown thinking Stanley Cup again. I give the edge to the Lightning.
In net, Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevski came out flying this season (7 of his 8 shutouts came in the team’s first 47 games) but leveled as the season wore on. He can be spectacular and is capable of getting on a roll. His Bruin counterpart Tuukka Rask takes some heat for being inconsistent but if you look at his career numbers, both regular season and playoffs, he has actually been quite the opposite. He won the Vezina in 2014 and is certainly capable of taking a team deep. Slight edge to the Bruins.
Defensively, the Bruins gave up the fewest goals in the east this season (third best in the NHL). They play with a rugged edge and are still led by 40-year-old Zdeno Chara (plus 22). They also provide ample and timely offensive contributions, led by Torey Krug (14 g, 45 a). The Lightning, with Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman and trade deadline acquisition Ryan McDonagh, are solid but have been plagued by some inconsistency. Edge Bruins.
The forwards on both teams boast fire power and versatility. The top Bruin line of Patrice Bergeron, flanked by Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak has been spectacular. The top line for the Lightning (Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and JT Miller) takes a back seat to very few teams. Who wins this battle could very well determine who wins this series, but as usual, the Stanley Cup playoffs are about depth and the unsung heroes. Neither team is lacking in this department. Rising star, Jake DeBrusk and veterans David Krejci, Rick Nash and David Backes provide significant depth in Boston. The Bolts counter with offensive fire from Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn. Slight edge to Tampa.
As for the intangibles, clearly anything less than a championship will be regarded as a failed season for the Lightning, especially after the trade deadline moves that brought in former Rangers McDonagh and Miller. For Boston, their post-Thanksgiving surge put them in position to think big and although I wouldn’t consider it house money at this point, clearly the pressure is on Tampa Bay. They are also a bit more battle tested as a team. In what should be a long series, I like the game seven chances of the Lightning. If it plays out that way maybe they can send their state mate Panthers a thank you for another trip to the conference finals. Lightning Bolts in seven.