Eastern Conference Final Preview

After a long wait, the Conference finals are finally here! This is the round where I’m eating crow because I picked neither of these teams to make it out of the second round. Well, no one predicts everything right and I’m pretty sure the Lightning sweeping the Capitals surprised a lot of people. For the Bruins, clearly I underestimated how bad the Flyers goaltending is because that seemed to be what gave the B’s an edge among other things. This matchup is pretty difficult to predict because we’ve got two teams riding high percentages, so there’s a lot of stuff that can go either way.  Let’s start off by looking at the basic peripherals.

Regular Season Data:

Through this, it looks like Tampa has the distinct advantage as they’ve been better at controlling play at even strength during the regular season. The only clear advantage Boston has here is their goaltending and possibly their penalty kill. It’s no secret that they’ve had to rely a lot on Tim Thomas to steal games for them this year, and why wouldn’t you with the year he had? Thankfully for the Bruins, the playoff stats tell a vastly different story:

During the playoffs, it’s been the Bruins who have been controlling play at even strength. Tampa was outplayed in almost every game in the playoffs and won due to their opponents failing on the powerplay and their offense getting fairly lucky (notice that shooting percentage?).  Tampa’s been a good team at even strength all season, though so I don’t think this is enough evidence to count them out. I said in the Bolts/Caps preview that the main factor for Washington winning was for the powerplay to convert. It never did, and Tampa became victorious. You could say that this is highly luck driven since they have been VERY undisciplined this post-season and yet, have a success rate of 94.4%. Boston might actually be the best matchup for them here in this instance because the Bruins powerplay has been simply miserable in the playoffs with only 37 shots generated and a pathetic 5% efficiency rate. The Lightning also have the advantage of a very potent powerplay going up against a mediocre Boston penalty kill. The Bruins are going to need to stay disciplined if they expect to win this. They are playing better than Tampa at even strength but both special teams matches work heavily against them.

Forwards

Time to dissect the players on these teams. Both are suffering from key injuries with Boston’s top center Patrice Bergeron suffering a concussion and Tampa will likely be missing veteran winger Simon Gagne. There is talk that Bergeron might be ready to play game 1, but I doubt the Bruins will want to rush him back from another concussion. Either way, these are significant blows to both teams but they have a lot of depth in their forward corps to help ease the pain. Though, Boston missing Bergeron will be a much bigger hit to the B’s than the Lightning missing Gagne. I’ll explain below.

Bruins

The chart shows each player’s playoff stats through their corsi numbers relative to their quality of competition and groups them by which line they usually play on. Also shown is the percentage of draws they took in the offensive zone.  This is 5v5 data.

Just by looking at this, you can tell how big of a loss Bergeron is. He is shown to be an excellent two-way player as he took a lot of draws in the defensive zone and actually fared very well against his opponents. Him taking a lot of defensive zone draws opened up the door for the Horton-Krecji-Lucic line to be more offensive-minded and while Lucic struggled, Krecji and Horton did very well. The Marchand-Bergeron-Recchi line also contributed offensively despite getting tough assignments. Meanwhile, the bottom-six got mostly defensive assignments with the exception of Michael Ryder and the numbers kind of speak for themselves. Peverley and Kelly aren’t doing as well as they did in the regular season, but I’m expecting them to continue to get more defensive roles if Bergeron is out. A notable x-factor here could be rookie Tyler Seguin. He stats look underwhelming because he doesn’t quite have a place in the Bruins lineup here but he has his chance to really shine if they elect to replace Bergeron with him. This could mean that his line gets sheltered minutes, though but the bottom-six hasn’t been buried that much this post-season so it’s possible to do give him more offensive zone draws.

Lightning

Obviously, the lines are going to look different with Gagne out. We could see Lecavalier, St. Louis and Stamkos on a line together or have Purcell on a line with Vinny and St. Louis. Either way, Guy Boucher has three lines he likes to use the most in games and they usually change around a lot. The most potent is obviously the top line of Malone-Stamkos-St. Louis with the goal-scoring power all three have. All three have good corsi ratings relative to their quality of competition and usually make the most of their offensive zone starts (Malone’s is low because he’s played on a couple different lines). There’s not really one replacement for Gagne since Boucher juggled his lines a lot since he got hurt so I would expect the first three lines to be jumbled around a bit. The players in that third grouping are very dangerous, though. They are trusted with a lot of defensive zone starts and manage to be very productive offensively, especially Sean Bergenheim. His speed and ability to create chances is one thing that doomed Washington. Dominic Moore is the same only he is more dangerous as a playmaker than a goal-scorer. Nate Thompson, Adam Hall and Teddy Purcell get top 9 minutes on a lot of nights too and the first two are in a similar vein as Bergenheim with how they can create chances despite getting buried in the defensive zone. Always seems that players like this show up in the post-season. This is where Tampa differentiates from Boston; they have more than two lines who can score at anytime.

Defense


Bruins

Interesting that Chara has apparently struggled this post-season because I thought he was the Bruins best player in a few games against Montreal. Him and Seidenberg have been seeing the toughest competition, though and I think he will bounce back. Boychuk and Ference have fared decently so far but against middling competition so we shall see how that holds up. Meanwhile, Kaberle has struggled with sheltered minutes and hasn’t quite been the force on the powerplay which the B’s traded for. McQuaid is hurt and Hnidy is his replacement and as you can see, he probably won’t see more than 10-12 minutes per night. This defense lacks depth but it is compensated by Boston having a defensive-minded bottom-six which has helped so far this post-season. The way I see it is, that Chara is the key piece and he is dragging Seidenberg with him while Boychuk and Ference have been serviceable in their roles.

Lightning

No Kubina is a significant loss but the key pieces here are Brewer and Ohlund. These two have been terrific so far as the team’s “shut down” pair in the playoffs and it helps that Brewer can play on the powerplay, too.  Everyone was talking how much of a genius Steve Yzerman was for snagging Dwayne Roloson while him getting Brewer at the deadline for a low cost was somewhat overlooked. He has made an impact ever since he joined. Hedman and Clark are getting tough assignments and doing a decent job against them, but are still vulnerable, especially Clark. Then you have the rest of the group. Hopefully for Tampa’s sake Kubina’s ready because they may have to roll with 4 d-men for most of the game with some of these other options. You can do worse than Lundin but you can do a lot better. Randy Jones is a pylon and working a powerplay is the only thing MA Bergeron is useful for. Basically, it’s a solid top 4 and everything else is a question mark.

Goaltending

Tim Thomas has carried his excellent play from the regular season into the post-season, particularly last round. I still think that we’re going to see a regression but it sure as hell didn’t happen against Philly. Meanwhile, Dwayne Roloson has been fantastic in the playoffs and is capable of stealing a game so I view this as a wash.

Verdict

Tampa has the advantage on offense and they also have a lot of players with past experience so that will give them an advantage. That along with an enormous special teams advantage. One thing Boston has going for them is that they are controlling play a lot better at even strength than the Lightning have. They will also get their opportunities to get their powerplay going since Tampa’s been one of the most undisciplined teams in the playoffs. No Patrice Bergeron will make things very tough on the B’s and they may have to rely on Thomas to steal a couple games for them if they want to win. However, I think Tampa’s been riding high percentages way too much for me to have full confidence in them so with that, I think Boston will take this series and advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Things can easily go the other way, though. That’s the beauty of a series like this.

Boston in 6

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